Last week I reported on the recent spate of old school soul releases by, for the most part, younger artists. It’s a trend that I’m as grateful for as I am for the sunlight and warm breezes that have replaced the cold and dark of winter. So while I will not diminish those efforts in any way, I must take note of the fact that one of the form’s great masters has returned, and in essence is here to show the young bloods how it’s really done.
I can clearly recall the first time I heard “Tired of Being Alone.” It was 1971, and my friend Billy owned Village Records in South Orange, N.J. It was still above the camera shop at that point, but would later move down the street into a storefront of its own. I was a regular customer, and a semi-regular employee, so Billy was well aware of my penchant for the great soul and r&b on the ’60s. One day, no sooner had I reached the top of the stairs leading to the store when Billy said, “hey, you have to hear this.” He wiped off a 45 rpm single that bore an unfamiliar label, and slapped it on the turntable. It was a seminal moment in my appreciation of music.
Al Green spent the rest of the ’70s enjoying one hit single after another, and the albums that included the hits were must-listens as well. But all of the success apparently didn’t provide Al with what he was really looking for, and eventually God, as he will do, intervened. Soul legend Al Green became Reverend Al Green, and the ’80s and ’90s saw him release a series of gospel albums. Just when it seemed that the secular music world had lost him for good, he released the brilliant I Can’t Stop in 2003, and followed it up two years later with the even greater Everything’s OK.
Now the 62 year-old Green has returned with Lay It Down (Blue Note), and it’s a career-capping triumph. The Good Reverend hasn’t lost a bit off his fastball, and he still slings a pretty effective curve too. On several tracks he duets with prominent neo-soul exponents Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, and John Legend, and while they all acquit themselves nobly, they are something of an afterthought. There’s no doubt about who the star of this show is.
Lay it Down was so brilliantly produced by Green, keyboard player James Poyser, and The Roots’ “?uestlove” Thompson, that you almost don’t miss the presence of the great Willie Mitchell, who produced so many Al Green classics. Adam Blackstone’s bass and Thompson’s drums are way up there in the mix. ?uestlove can do more with a kick drum, snare, and hi-hat than most drummers can do with a huge kit. “Spanky” Alford’s guitar fills and Poyser’s organ stabs fill in the spaces that the rhythm section leaves for them, and the horns rise over the top of it all. At the end of the day though, it’s all about the once-in-a-lifetime voice of Al Green, and the redemptive power of love.
If you took the time to read this far, listening to the deep soul of “Just For Me,” or the hard funk groove of “I’m Wild About You,” which features one of Green’s greatest vocal performances (and that’s saying something!), will tell you everything you need to know. It all comes down to this — Al Green is back, and you can’t miss it.
There is nothing nostalgic about this music. It demands to be listened to in the context of today’s world, and it easily finds its place. At the same time it never bows to current fashion by employing production tricks, and Green’s young duet partners reign in their more melismatic impulses. Al Green knows who he is, and when you hear his music, so do you. He has never pretended to be anyone else because he wants you to recognize him. That, by definition, makes this music timeless. This is one of the best albums of this, or any year.
Lay It Down will be released on May 27. Run, don’t walk, to your favorite record store, whether it be in the ether, or on dry land, and get yourself a copy. While you’re at it, buy copies for your friends. They’ll love you for it.