Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On doesn’t simply boast the gospel influence that marks so much of America’s most transformative works in blues and R&B. The album actually has the consistently challenging depth and heart-opening heft of sacred music. They should sing these songs in church.
Turbulently emotional, but sure of its wider values, What’s Going On is one of rock music’s most complex joys — and one of the 1970s most important records. Not just because of its timeless themes on the issue of conflict (“war is not the answer,” Gaye famously sings; “only love can conquer hate”) and conservation but also its biting exploration of social injustice — and how brotherly compassion can bolster those fighting their way out of these earth-bound travails.
Interpretive and feisty, Marvin Gaye had broken ranks with the Motown label’s smoothly processed hitmaking dynamic after scoring big with a radical reworking of Whitfield and Strong’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”: Once a lighthearted nod to romantic paranoia, it became in Gaye’s vocal a glimpse into the shadowed heart of a bereft emotional wreck. That success in 1968 earned Gaye, now sporting a once-verboten wisp of facial hair, the right to plunge deeper into an exploration of his roiling emotional state. His days were complicated by a foundering marriage, the difficult illness and death of his longtime signing partner Tammi Terrell and his own feelings about the wrong-headed initiative in Vietnam. Gaye’s brother Frankie was unhappily serving in the military, and Marvin used that as a platform for this album’s title track — an intimate experiment in multi-layered vocalization, subtle Latin grooves and this-just-in social consciousness.
The mile markers of America’s then-growing discontent continue to rush by as Gaye dives into his masterwork: He notes “picket lines, and picket signs,” as veterans are derisively greeted upon their return. Elsewhere, those who remained “can’t find no job, my friend/money is tighter than it’s ever been.” Even “Mercy, Mercy Me,” which lists the planet’s many eco-problems over an hypnotic rhythm, ends with a dark question: “How much more can she stand?” But songs like “Save the Children” arrive as heartfelt counterbalances to these foreboding portents: “Save the babies!,” Gaye cries, shattering whatever hopelessness might have seeped into the record. God loves us, he later surmises, “whether or not we know it, and he’ll forgive all our sins.”
Gaye embraces this world, and this moment, as a bridge to sweet salvation — perhaps nowhere more so than on the complex (both rhythmically and lyrically) “Wholy Holy”: “Holler love,” Gaye sings, “across the nation.” In this way, he finds a cathedral inside his own chest, this fragile flowering of hope fighting its way through the concrete jungle.
There follows, of course, this seemingly dire warning to conclude Gaye’s project — “Inner City Blues” focuses on the powers that be, and “the way they do my life” — but, really, it always felt like a cautionary tale to underscore the beauty that came before. Like what might befall those who don’t embrace both Gaye’s call toward examination and the redemption that can most assuredly follow. As with the title track and “Mercy, Mercy Me,” this concluding song would make a remarkable run up both the R&B and pop charts in the early 1970s, forever establishing Gaye as an individual artist in his own right.
Even today, though, they jump out of the radio, crackling not just with hard-eyed truths but also with a rare and lingering idealism for such a serious recording: Gaye’s What’s Going On, a pillowy subtle religious statement throughout, remains Marvin’s lasting document of faith — an eternal call to love.
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