There comes a time in every great soul artist’s life when they have to compete against their own myth. Myth plays a vital part in soul music because its roots come from the folklore of slavery, pertaining to the cross-currents of beauty and sorrow that come from the spirituals to the secular, populist, and deeply human aesthetic of the work songs. Because the greatest soul singers have been the most concise interpreters of both forms, it isn’t surprising that they have assumed larger than life status. Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, serving as mythic preachers, who reshaped popular music in their own image with vocal sermon after vocal sermon. Sam Cooke, the chocolate brown Apollo who took his sweet song to the coliseums of middle-America only to be killed by the bereft armies of the music business when he wanted to sing for himself. Sly Stone, the frightfully gifted prodigal son who, throughout mountains of PCP and cocaine, never came home. Stevie Wonder, the golden child who, through the power of his Moog and his imagination, took the frenetic joy of the revival to Neptune.
I Can’t Stop, Green’s secular comeback album in 2003, succeeds in both showing how powerful and real the myth of Al Green is and in showing how the myth can differ from the artist as well. It articulates why he is considered as, arguably, the greatest soul artist of all time, but also the full range of the gifts that made him mythic in nature, as well as the deeply human element of his art that has compelled people to it for over three decades. Those looking for the master of controlled sensuality and nearly unbearable sexual tension that created hit after breathtaking hit in the ’70s will leave slightly disappointed, for, unlike many middle-aged men, he doesn’t act like a sexually charged teenager, nor does he try. Those looking for an artist whose grasp of his form is better than damn near any one on the planet, who still has a sense of the nature of his own art, and who still has the wherewithal that one needs to make great art will be satisfied; for I Cant Stop is a portrait of a great artist in nearly full command of his faculties, with the guts to use all of them.
Just because he’s almost a wistful 60 doesn’t mean that the Right Reverend has become a eunuch. The title track starts off where 1977’s Belle, his epic last full-length secular album, ended. And this needs explanation. In “Dream,” the final track to the album, Green kissed his muse goodbye in what can only be described as the musical equivalent of mind numbing breakup sex. “Dream” is a sensory overload, Green emptying out all of his sexual energy moan by ecstatic moan until the 9-minute track becomes a post-coital blur. It is precisely the way “Dream” ended, that left fans waiting for him to make a comeback, waiting for 26 years, buying his erratic gospel records and seeing him in his breathtaking stage performances in order to be satiated.
“I Cant Stop”, the title track, returns to that same place, with a loss of his youthful power but not a scintilla less intensity. The voice might have lost its timber but it still has the immaculate technique of its owner. Here, with Willie Mitchell and The Memphis Horns in full swing, he basically admits that he’s longing for a woman’s touch. Like that, as if 26 years haven’t passed, Green steps back into the emotional fire and reminds us the preciously thin line between being in the spirit and being in an orgasm, his musical metier. Like all Al Green bedroom odes, the song doesn’t work because he talks under the woman’s draws, but by sheer intensity and force of his performance, which screams sex more than 1,235,217 Britney and Christina songs played 1,235,217 times over. He digs, screams, shouts, croons, caresses, and growls as well as any singer in communicating the intensity that one can feel from being in love.
But if you listen closely you can hear that the song isn’t just a very elegant and nuanced song about fucking. In this adlib, “old Hands leave me alone!!”, you can hear the difference between the old secular Green and new secular Green: a man who’s now searching for a deeply mature version of sex in relation to the concept of love itself. The deep chasm between God and sex that made him quit popular music the first time lay in how he could brilliantly fuse the two on record yet couldn’t in real life, using the same mountains of cocaine that did in Sly. When he decided to sober himself up and really commit himself to the ministry, he cut off all the old places he used to go while he was high, one of them being secular music. Saying “old Hands leave me alone” isn’t just a way for Al to tell his demons not to tempt him, it’s a way for him to appreciate the joyful stimuli of sex without craving the not so joyful stimuli of blow.
You can hear that sophisticated sexuality in “Play to Win” and “I’ve been Thinkin’ Bout You”. “Play to Win”’s power comes from the con of its premise. Green plays the role of down home seducer, crooning, caressing, and seducing his muse into believing that his love is so good that it can make her forget that he ain’t got a thing to his name. Add Willie Mitchell’s string section, a smooth conga backbeat and a sparse blues guitar and you have one hell of a song. “I’ve Been Thinkin’ Bout You” might be a by the numbers “lets make out for Jesus” gospel romp, but when the result is that good and well done, there is little use in being picky.
But the bulk of the album doesn’t come in Green’s deliciously entendred sex ballads or spirited funk workouts. No, the core of what makes I Cant Stop brilliant lies in the exquisite craftsmanship that Green, along with Mitchell, shows in creating and singing an R&B love song. Here is where the brilliance of Mitchell comes in, perhaps more than any other record he has done with Green. Mitchell, the production svengali behind Green’s ’70’s records, had previously mastered a production style built on counterpoint; creating new sounds built between glossy strings and church organs, between church organs and Memphis Horns, between Memphis Horns and subtle funk backbeats, as well as combinations of all of the above.
Listening to the record, you get the feeling that Mitchell hadn’t rested on his old sound, but broadened and perfected it with a singular determination, as if he had to waited to do this, this and only this for 26 years. Critics who bemoan about his sound being dated can’t be anymore wrong, as he expands his musical retinue to add new textures to his soul wall of sound. He uses different Moogs and guitars to add new rhythmic patterns and beautiful melodic tension. The result is a loose, smooth, and beautiful new sound that bends easier to include blues, funk, pop, gospel, and various combinations of the above. You can hear that in the horn, liquid bass, and organ dynamic of “You”, as it also shows Green’s grasp of diverse blues backgrounds from Little Milton to the late, great Rufus Thomas.
Mitchell’s production is so good that it even masks Green’s lyrical missteps, the only major flaw of the album. As you can probably see, I love Al Green to death, but even he can’t fix such clichéd songs as “Million to One” and “Shining Star”. But they fail only in comparison to the staggering achievements that Green has on the album, and Mitchell’s crack productions makes both songs listenable even in their own faults.
But the stunner of the album, and what makes it different from most Green epics is that its greatest songs are its blues ballads. They not only show the man in full command of his gifts, but also force us to look at a Green totally different from our perceptions of him. The world is so used to Green as a sensualist par excellance, and, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison, minister of ecumenical ecstasy that it takes us by surprise when we hear Green the old man with all the emotional scars that come from 60 years of living. “Not Tonight” and “I Choose You“ stay somewhat in the vein of sweet, beautiful, and timeless love, but also show the traces of sorrow that old love — love that has been through the bumps and bruises of life. The satin arrangements of “Not Tonight” show Green at his most slick and cool. They also betray the deep fear of the death of love that he has throughout the song. The smooth and composed demeanor that Green has might be a schtick, but it’s a schtick with one hell of a melancholy core. Throughout the song’s duration, the satin exterior of his messages erodes into a desperate man begging for forgiveness with a deep and almost biblical intensity, fueled by the fear of dying alone.
“I’d Still Choose You” is Al talking to the same woman after she decides to stay with his ass. Set to a bass and horn driven track, it’s the sound of a man who’s worked through all of his midlife crises, and is deeply searching for an innocent childlike love that he once had with his woman. Like “Why Did I Choose You”, Marvin Gaye’s melancholy masterpiece, Green tells his woman that, through all the events and elements that can damage a relationship, he would do it all again with her. Unlike Gaye, who acknowledges his fuck ups before retreating into a cocaine induced hell, Green offers himself as a changed man, with the chops and the passion to make you believe him. The result is a spiritual regeneration of a man, the picture of a fresh, clean and new beginning. And when he says, “I’ll learn with you/I’ll grow with you”, you not only hear a beautiful ending but an example of the intrinsic moral fiber that made Green great in the first place.
Others don’t offer such a beautiful template, but are compelling songs nonetheless. “Raining In My Heart”’s clichéd lyrics might make you run from the room, but his performance will keep you glued to the CD player. It starts slow, gentle, almost too demure, and the first time you hear the hook you are tempted to skip the track. But when he lets out his first growl, you’re hooked, and the rest of the song is encyclopedic reference of his influences: Ray Charles’s preachers growl, Sam Cooke’s vocal leaps, the crisp clear vocal runs of Claude Jeter, and Julius Cheeks’s upper register. All of them have one thing in common: they’re brilliant but depressing. Green successfully communicates the existential terror of an unrequited love and by the end of the song, you really do believe that it is raining in Green’s heart.
I thought “My Problem is You” was bloated the first time I heard it, and showed no emotion. I still think it’s two minutes too long (6:20?), but what I took for emotional emptiness when I listened to the first time grew into deep emotional complexity. Green doesn’t tackle the song from obvious catharsis, as I initially wanted him to, but from a deeply inward emotional place that shows that sometimes love can be too painful to articulate, and the brilliance comes in how he can say so much in vocalizing so little. “My Problem is You” isn’t as much a snarl as it is a resigned gulp, a containment of feelings that, behind the surface, seem ready to explode. And leave it to crafty ol’ Willie to try and sneak it out of him with the lyrics. In the end you, have a breathtaking emotional push and pull, with Al winning but barely, as those growls, yells, and shouts grow closer to tears as the song progresses.
But the absolute clincher that I Can’t Stop is a magnificent comeback for Green lies in the grand slam of “Too Many”, the final track. A straight up and down ragtime-influenced blues number; it is the most avant garde song Green has ever done. It starts off by biting a lick from Billy Preston and goes into a bright and breezy piano-driven number, similar to the ones that the aforementioned Thomas used to do so well.
But as the listener gets comfortable, in come the lyrics:
“I got too many tears to shed
I got too many ghosts in my bed
I got too many, and that’s wrong for you”
The song goes through the stunning push and pull of the vocal/lyrical dynamic, with one minute Green being a skinning and grinning trickster, the next a bitter, manic-depressive clown, cursing himself to the brightness of the arrangement, cursing the audience to the bright jazz riffs of the piano. “Too Many” is Green doing Pagaliacci as Memphis confidence man, fusing the contrarian essence of the work song with the eternal pathos of that old tormented Italian clown and the rebellious duality of the African trickster. It is also an example of why Green is one of the greatest musical artists to ever draw breath.
I expected to say something here about Green going back into the fire of secular music, but what I got from Green is something entirely better. I Can’t Stop‘s brilliance doesn’t lie in his rehashing of any ’70’s love man poses, but in Green’s sterling and steadfast dedication to his craft. Its triumphs not only remind you why Green was so brilliant for so long, but show you why Green still is. In this era of mallrat pop production, fake suburban punk pathos, and perverse bigotry of mainstream hip-hop, Green’s return to form wasn’t only wonderful to the ears, but for my money, one of the greatest musical stories of the decade.