Thursday, 11 August 2011

Soul Music For Separation: Marvin's Anger & Genius

On Tuesday night I watched a truly fascinating documentary on the life and work of Marvin Gaye. Like most music buffs, I knew about his Motown glory period, his fabulous duets with Tammi Terrell, the political power of What’s Going On and that he was tragically shot to death by his own father in 1984. What I did not know was the scale of his musical genius and how an album that I had never heard of previously had the power to speak to me and address some of my most painful inner conflict. That album is 1978’s Here, My Dear. PopMatters explains the context behind the album’s conception:

In 1976, Gaye and his then-wife Anna Gordy (the sister of Motown founder and CEO Berry) decided to split after a twelve year marriage. As part of the divorce settlement, the soul singer was ordered to give a portion of the advance money and royalties from this album to his ex-wife. Feeling a bit burned by the whole ordeal, Gaye went on to put his frustrations and anger into one of the most painfully intimate song cycles in musical history and then release it to the public. Think of it as an open letter to Anna—one that would be read (or heard, as it were) by Marvin’s entire fan base.
In essence Here, My Dear is a public and cathartic kiss off. It is the height of self indulgence, and yet entirely empathetic for every person that has ever been hurt by love. This is especially true of my favourite song of the album When Did You Stop Loving Me? When Did I Stop Loving You? which combines all the range of emotions through the stages of an emotional break up: anger, sadness, bitterness, regret, judgment and feeling desperate to recapture the good times: all in just over six minutes. It is possibly the most realistic breakup ever recorded.

Musically the album retains the high standards Gaye set in the early '70s, but you can hear the agonizing strain of recent events in his voice, to the point where even several vocal overdubs can't save his delivery. Stripped to its bare essence, Here, My Dear is no less than brilliantly unsettling and a perfect cauterization to a decade filled with personal turmoil.
And yet despite the album’s genius it was considered a commercial flop upon its release.
Nothing on Here, My Dear is particularly radio friendly (probably one of the reasons Motown had trouble promoting this record), but despite that—or maybe even because of it—it’s a totally engrossing listen. From the call-and-response (gospel-style) of the swaying I Met a Little Girl (on which Marvin somewhat randomly shouts out “1964!” and “1976!”—the years the couple met and split, respectively—sounding like a funky carnival barker) to the shuffling dance groove of the foreboding You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You to the sarcastic title track, it’s all top-shelf stuff. Not to mention the fact that the band he assembled for the album is on fire throughout. Was there any soul album released in the 1970s that didn’t have superior musicianship?
Despite these winning qualities Here, My Dear has almost no resemblance to a traditional Motown album of the 1970s. Noted music critic for the Village Voice Robert Christgau crystallises these contradictions when reviewing the album upon its release.
Seventy minutes of pop music with nary a melody line almost qualifies as a tour de force, and the third side barely escapes the turntable at all. Yet this is a fascinating, playable album. Its confessional ranges from naked poetry ("Somebody tell me please/Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" is a modernist trope that ranks with any of Elvis Costello's) to rank jive, because Gaye's self-involvement is so open and unmediated, guileless even at its most insincere, it retains unusual documentary charm. And within the sweet, quiet, seductive, and slightly boring mood Gaye is at such pains to realize, his rhythmic undulations and whisper-to-a-scream timbral shifts can engross the mind, the body, and above all the ear. Definitely a weird one. B+
The hallmark of the album continues to be the combination of Gaye’s musical arrangements and his honest, emotional and confrontational songwriting.
The emotions explored on this album: while it certainly has its share of bitterness and spitefulness, there are also moments of dry humor, as well as a certain warmth. Obviously, there’s still some love involved if Marvin & Anna were together for 12 years. From a musical standpoint, this album is largely midtempo funk, with elements of traditional soul, gospel, and doo-wop mixed together with a slight hint of disco (after all, this was the late ‘70s). In other words, it’s musically similar to any of Marvin’s albums during his stellar run during the ‘70s.

Along the way, Marvin complains about everything from not being allowed to see his son (on the title track) to having to pay his ex-wife alimony (on the darkly humorous Is That Enough, where he whines “What was I supposed to do? / The judge says that she’s got to live the way she’s accustomed to!”)  Not to say that Marvin was only taking his frustrations out on his ex. Songs like Anger and Time to Get It Together find the singer looking inward, facing the knowledge that he has to do some work on himself before he can move forward with his life.
Here, My Dear represents what all great albums should do. They should be passionate, honest and infectious. Anyone who knows what it is like to experience the pain of separation should experience this magnificent album.
As albums become less and less concept-oriented over time, albums like Here, My Dear stick out even more. It was obviously made in the spirit of true artistic expression and not to reach the masses via a catchy hit single. It’s definitely not an easy listen—you will have to pay attention if you want to enjoy it—but it might just be the second-best Marvin Gaye of all time (and from What’s Going On until his death, he didn’t record a bad one). If you’re a fan of soul music, a fan of Marvin Gaye, or even if you’re going through a divorce yourself and need something to relate to, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Here, My Dear—an album whose appreciation finally seems to be catching up to it’s quality.

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