MARVIN GAYE Let’s Get It On (Tamla)
It’s clearly my fault, but I’ve never really appreciated this album. After not exactly putting the world to rights but at least drawing attention to its wrongs with the monumental “What’s Going On”, this brief sliver of bedroom soul seems indulgent and, uh, anticlimactic. It sounds like an underwritten, diluted Isaac Hayes impersonation, its songs starting, meandering about for a while and then ending, without altering the listener (well, this listener, at least) in any way. I’m certainly not attempting to argue with the album’s classic status, but I just don’t hear it myself. I’d make a case, though, for “Just To Keep You Satisfied”. This long, slow outro, in detailing the breakup of the singer’s marriage to Anna Gordy, pretty much negates everything that’s gone before it; at last there’s some tension and consequence, after seven songs spent encouraging and celebrating living for the moment.
Unfortunately, the current Tamla vinyl issue of “Let’s Get It On” is rubbish – you can recognise it from its generic black and gold 180 gram warning sticker (“The Nicest Thing You Can Do For Your Stylus And Your Ears” would be to keep it well away from both) which has rarely been a signpost to sonic bliss in my experience. Riddled with dropouts, it’s harsh and sibilant, characteristics that this kind of music is hardly enhanced by. Still, the gatefold sleeve is a pleasant distraction from the earache its contents generate, especially Marvin’s own sleevenotes (“I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky”) and the choice T S Eliot quotation “Birth and copulation and death, that’s all the facts when you get to brass tacks”.
MARVIN GAYE Here, My Dear (Tamla)
In 1975, Marvin Gaye’s wife, Anna (who just happened to be the sister of his label boss, Berry Gordy), filed for divorce. Unable to afford alimony and child support payments on top of a lavish lifestyle heavy on houses, cars and cocaine, Marvin’s lawyer brokered a deal in which Anna would be given half the royalties earned by his next album. Marvin’s original intentions of recording a “lazy, bad” album fell by the wayside as, over the year it took shape, “Hear, My Dear” grew into a double-length rumination on love and loss.
The result was, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most uncomfortably personal albums ever made (and this, let’s not forget, from the man responsible for “Let’s Get It On”, a work not exactly backward in coming forward). If that album instigated a move from verse/chorus structures towards less disciplined soul and funk jams, the transformation is complete here. Low on hummability, themes recur over the record’s four sides (“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You”, for example, appears in standard, instrumental and reprise trim). A desperately sad diary of communication and emotional breakdown, a little like “Let It Be” I suppose, there’s not really a lot for the intrepid listener to latch on to. The free-form string- and synth-driven funky jams are a little reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, but the poisoned sentiments are not. That bitterness also informs the album art: there are statues inscribed “Love And Marriage” on the front cover and “Pain And Divorce” on the back, and a Monopoly-esque board game called Judgement plays out across the gatefold.
There’s something ickily disquieting about Marvin’s frequent narrative voiceovers, for example the title track’s “Hope you enjoy, reminisce, be happy, think about the joy”, on which he sounds like a corrupt hypnotist. Lines such as “Why do I have to pay attorney fees?/This is a joke/I need a smoke” (from “Is That Enough”) or “Even a slimy snail needs love/Even the folks in jail need love/Even a superstar needs love” (“Everybody Needs Love”), whilst probably an accurate portrayal of the trauma he was undergoing at the time, are unlikely to rate amongst his greatest lyrical achievements. Similarly, there’s a sourly ironic tang to the line “My father, he needs love” given the circumstances of Marvin’s untimely demise. Gaye’s attempt to teleport his bittersweet bedroom soul into “Star Wars” territory, “A Funky Space Reincarnation”, sits perfectly harmoniously with the rest of the album if you can ignore its lyrics about space beds and smoke from Venus. “Sparrow” is the album’s keeper; cloaking sadness aside, it’s the song most easily disentangled from the rest of the album, with an arrangement that sounds distinctly offbeat in this company.
In his sleevenotes, Marvin’s attorney Curtis Shaw claims “this masterpiece…is most assuredly a collector’s item”; it’d take a lawyer to come up with a euphemism like that for ‘career suicide’. Still, such was “Here, My Dear”’s unloved status that I was able to snag a sealed first (only?) pressing of the vinyl version, which has presumably been languishing unheard in a warehouse for the last 30 years.
MARVIN GAYE The Very Best Of Marvin Gaye (UTV/Motown/Universal)
The sticker on the cover of this album boasts of it containing "all of his no. 1 hits" (which it does, but then again he did only have three, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" here and in America and "Let's Get It On" and "Got To Give It Up" in America only) and of being the "definitive 2 CD set", a claim that's rather harder to justify. The tracks selected are closely linked to his American success, which means British top 10 hits such as "The Onion Song", "Abraham, Martin And John" and "You Are Everything" are conspicuously absent, something that's especially galling considering the half-hour of empty space this set contains.
Considering what has been included on this somewhat lopsided compilation, early gems such as "Hitch Hike" and "Can I Get A Witness" remind where the young Rolling Stones looked for material (and also how The Velvet Underground liberated the former's intro for "There She Goes Again", a thrilling example of cultural cross-pollination). Of the smattering of Tammi Terrell duets present "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" is magnificent, its chiming clockwork introduction building to moments of towering vocal drama. But it's the less familiar selections that steal the show - because, let's face it, who doesn't already recognise the greatness of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"'s sinister malevolence? (Although the way Marvin's voice slides from the right of the soundstage to the left by the second chorus was new to me.) The jangling, hunted paranoia of "You" is very welcome, and a previously unreleased stereo mix of "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" exposes a somewhat deeper spiritual dimension to Gaye's music than even "What's Going On" touched upon.
Speaking of which, the three selections from that album that open the second CD are as luminous and vital as ever, even 30 years after the fact - "Astral Weeks" stepping off the Greyhound in its home town, appalled at the headline news. There are a couple of thrilling postscripts to that landmark album included here: "You're The Man - Pts. I & II" was released during Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, a close cousin to Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother". It's a signpost to how fast attitudes were changing at Motown less than two years after the company had tried to bury "What's Going On", and also a mark of Gaye's restless musical invention, being a harder-edged, intricate funk thing. The previously unreleased "Where Are We Going?" is a deliciously slinky slab of doubting, confused protest soul from the same year. A revelatory live version of "Distant Lover" is driven by an almost gospel-like interaction between Gaye and an overheated, responsive female audience, and "I Want You" is a neglected gem, propulsive, subtle, a finely woven tapestry of raindrop harmonies, distant fuzz guitar and elaborate, luxurious brass and string arrangements. Towards the close of the collection Gaye seems to be reduced to chasing fashions rather than creating them: "Got To Give It Up" is 12 minutes of falsetto disco, whilst "Ego Tripping Out" seems to be a belated venture into "Superfly" territory.
"The Best Of Marvin Gaye" totters uneasily between the single volume 1994 compilation of the same name and the 4 CD box set "The Master", naggingly incomprehensive yet buoyed up by the odd snippet of devastating unreleased or rare material. It may not be Marvin package most deserving of shelf space next to a treasured copy of "What's Going On", but finding it at a commensurately low price (I picked it up for a not unreasonable £4.99) might help justify the decision to purchase.