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Al Green: “Lay it Down”

9th June 2008

by Stephen Foster

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Just let the man sing, please—the man being Al Green, who may or may not be the greatest male soul singer ever (just as Otis Redding may or may not be; or Marvin Gaye may or may not be, or, well, you get the picture).

If there is any one thing—there are two, actually—about Al Green’s latest release, Lay It Down (Blue Note Records), that diminishes its overall effect, it is that the album features multiple guest stars (see: Carlos Santana’s Supernatural back in 1999, a career revitalization effort with multiple guest stars that mostly worked; could “Smooth” really have been recorded that long ago)? Santana, in the vocal arena, could use the help. But not the Reverend Al Green, certainly not the man who made “I’m Still In Love with You,” Love and Happiness,” and, among many classics, “Call Me.”

They made you want to fall in love with someone. Anyone.

This is not to diminish the talent of his support: Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and the divine and spritely Corinne Bailey Rae–especially Rae, who will rob you of everything except illusions of reaching for her and pulling her close, her lover and protector. These are all able, accomplished singers in their own right. But to put it bluntly—excepting perhaps Ms. Rae—Green doesn’t need them.

However you view his historical standing as a soul singer, you can’t deny that exquisite voice—airy, whispery, mewling, soul-saturated. It belongs in a time capsule for the heavens for anyone out there–whoever’s out there–to hear. It would be a testament to the beauty, the power, and the emotional surrender that great music, especially soul music, induces. Of course it should come with a warning: when Al Green sings, intimacy ensues.


Behind The Scenes: The Making of Al Green’s Lay It Down

 

Green, of course, is a complicated man, but his muse has always followed a certain trajectory. He defined it in the 1970s with longtime producer Willie Mitchell at Hi Records. And it made him legendary. Then Green—and the grits in the face of his lover story is certainly apocryphal—left soul music for religion and the gospel, an even more emotive kind of soul. His departure point came with the release of The Belle Album in 1977, which in many ways is his best. You hear a man moving toward his God, but not so easily, at least in that his music only stubbornly lets go of his secular sexuality. The Belle Album was for Green an idiosyncratic album, and it marked a significant departure for him. It didn’t chart, and it didn’t make sense to the millions of listeners who would never relinquish “Call Me.

A long hiatus ensued. In 2003 he tried to capture the old Hi Records magic—what brought him out of his gospel devotion is uncertain—with Mitchell in I Can’t Stop. By Green’s and Mitchell’s standards it was average: a few good songs but not the old Al Green (of course, is it even fair to expect the old Al Green)? Two songs off of that album were standouts: “Not Tonight,” and “I’d Write a Letter.” Not much else conjured up the old soul magic. In 2005, Green/Mitchell teamed again on Everything’s OK—like I Can’t Stop, released on Blue Note Records. I didn’t eclipse its predecessor: one or two good songs, but, again, the old Al was missing.

Give credit to Green for shaking things up on Lay It Down. He turned from Mitchell and improbably hired as producers Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots (a layered and nuanced drummer) and James Poyser, a “?uestlove” associate.

The result is clearly a better album than Green’s previous two. But it still feels somewhat disappointing, and not just because Green’s paired with singers who are not even in his league—again, excluding the luminous Bailey.

(The collaboration may have been difficult. In an interview with “?uestlove” something about the recording session came up and Green said in effect that, “I’m Al Green goddammit, and I’ll sing it the way I wanna sing it.” That may or may not be true.)


Al Green Live: “Tired of Being Alone”

(Extended note here: I once saw a documentary where Al Green and Lyle Lovett were recording a duet cover of Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away.” Despite his best efforts, Green was losing patience with Lovett, who simply wasn’t “getting” some of the notes. To his credit, Lovett took it good naturedly. The point being, who’d even want to try and sing with the man?)

Green would have been better off going it alone, as he so often has. His voice requires no support.

And, finally, here’s the other problem with Lay It Down: Green’s songwriting is simply not strong; it’s an afterthought. There’s little going on in the lyrics, and even if Green is a man who never wrote complicated verses, he always had a writer’s sense of how he wanted to say something. I’m sure Green wanted to say many things here, but I doubt he wanted to take the time to puzzle at it. Perhaps he, too, simply thought big name accompaniment would be enough.

This may be a criticism. But it’s also Al Green. So even though Lay It Down is a less than stellar outing, much of it is fine, indeed: especially the Green/Bailey collaboration.

Speaking of taking time, that’s the name of their song: “Take Your Time.” It is a slow dance, a long burn that seems never to end, even when the song stops.

The Spill on Al Green’s Lay It Down:

Pitchfork: “The Greatest Living Soul Singer is 62 years old now, and age has thickened his voice, but miraculously hasn’t damaged it much; he’s still got immaculate power and control, all the way up to that extraordinary falsetto . . . “

Rolling Stone: “The supporting cast replicates the vintage stylings a touch too meticulously, and Green’s singing lacks the turbulence that animated his old masterpieces . . . “

Village Voice: “Now 62, the mighty reverend may not be able to make you spontaneously combust like yesteryear, but damn if he can’t still get you in the mood with his third batch of love songs for Blue Note . . . “

Soul Tracks: “Recorded in fresh surroundings in New York, the result is Green’s most consistently satisfying album in three decades . . . “

Blog Critics: “With production and percussion duties manned by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, the album achieves an old-school, down-home vibe, yielding songs that come off as satisfyingly unrushed, natural, and – dare one think it – dirty . . . “

Times Online: “While Corinne Bailey Rae sings with jazzy sophistication on Take Your Time and Anthony Hamilton shows how classic R&B can be updated on You’ve Got the Love I Need, it’s Al Green’s voice, so full of humour and joy, that stands out . . . “

Spin: “Lay It Down (with tasty guest spots from John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, and Corinne Bailey Rae) makes it clear that Green’s devotion to the primacy of his music’s groove has only deepened with age . . . “

The Ampersand: “This is a classic soul album, done with reverence and inspiration . . . “

PopMatters: “Forgive me for the excessive use of superlatives in this review, but it’s awfully hard to conceal my admiration for Al Green’s latest project, Lay It Down . . . “

One Response to “Al Green: “Lay it Down””

  1. Stella Splice Says:

    I saw him live last year. His set was too short, but he was working so hard on stage I thought he was gonna have a heart attack. He’s still got the goods in a big way, just an explosion of charisma, but he can’t maintain such intensity for too many songs. Mavis Staples has the same problem, so she let the N Mississippi All Stars (her backing band) do a long set beforehand. Despite this problem, they both have been among my favorite concerts. Ever.

    Also: He had a few dozen long-stemmed red roses he tossed one-by-one to ladies in the crowd. Super classy.

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