This past May, soul giant Al Green released his third album on the Blue Note label, Lay It Down. While the prior two albums recreated some of the magic from his glory days in the seventies, this one tinkers with the formula a bit. First, longtime producer and song collaborator Willie Mitchell was replaced with hip-hoppers James Poyser and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. Secondly, Green brought in a small parade of current R&B stars to share vocal duties with him, à la Santana's Supernatural.
Sounds like a recipe for a sell-out, right?
You can relax. Lay It Down is not only a "classic" Al Green album, these new-school producers come closer to Mitchell's vintage Hi Records production than Mitchell himself had done for Blue Note. There are almost no modern touches that I can detect and the horns provided by Sharon Jones' Dap-Kings Horns have the Memphis Horns sound nailed. The classic snare/hi-hat interplay, the church organ, and rich guitar chords are back in full force too.
Regardless of any changes, the success of an Al Green album ultimately comes down to Green's own performance; the hugely influential sound of his singing and his ebullient persona is at the very center of every performance he gives. It's no understatement to say that Al Green's groundbreaking work in the seventies gave him a place in a long line of great soul men including Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.
If there's any doubt of whether Green still merits that distinction, it's quickly dispelled with the opening title track. A gospel-inspired slow burner tastefully supported by Larry Gold's orchestration and the Dap-Kings Horns, Green sounds as committed as he ever was. He's squealing, pleading, screaming, stuttering—even laughing—more than he's done since "Have A Nice Day" was the universal motto.
Elsewhere, you can find connections to Green's hits of his golden era. "No One Like You" ends with a gospel coda evocative of "Love And Happiness". "Just For Me" has a rhythm guitar motif similar to that in "Tired Of Being Alone". "Stay With Me (By The Sea)" has got that same hi-hat shuffle found on "Still In Love With Me". "What More Do You Want From Me" is practically the sequel to "Look What You Done For Me".
You get the idea. These eleven Green originals – ten of which he co-wrote with the producers – recreate the feel of his vintage sound without rehashing anything.
And about those guest soul crooners. True, Green brought in some of the better-known heirs to his throne to share lead vocals including John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton. But Green's presence looms so large that no guest makes as much an impact as the real legend. Rae does take a nice turn on the ballad "Take Your Time", however, which suits her vocal style just as well as Green's.
Here's the bottom line: if you found I Can't Stop Stop and Everything's OK to be wanting and have been waiting for the secular Al Green to return, Lay It Down is a great place to embrace his music again. Green continues to inspire newer generations of great soul singers, but he's still greater than any of his disciples. With this latest release, his hold on the throne remains firm.