by Daniel Garrett
Produced by Willie Mitchell
and the Reverend Al Green
Blue Note Records, 2005
You Are So Beautiful
Build Me Up
Perfect to Me
Nobody but You
I Can Make Music
Be My Baby
I Wanna Hold You
All the Time
If music plays and a critic does not comment on it, does it really exist—or matter? (If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it does it make a sound?) What if a critic’s comment is damning—can the music be enjoyed, and enjoyed without guilt or doubt? I found myself wondering all that as I listened to Al Green’s album of songsEverything’s OK: of course, everything is not okay, with the album or the world, but where to start? There are some things we don’t want to say—and maybe that we are not supposed to say—out of love, or sympathy, or civility. Aren’t there? Al Green is a great singer, but Everything’s OK is not a great album. Should I say more? Al Green is an advising, asking, and beseeching man, a bragging, confirming, declaring, and desiring man, explaining, thanking, moaning, murmuring, proposing, remembering, seducing, sighing, soothing, and… surrendering. How do I know? It is in his singing—usually; however, I found his collection of songs Everything’s OK less than revelatory, actually disappointing.
Are there things that are better left unsaid, such as that the United States of America would not exist but for lands stolen from the indigenous people, misnamed Indians, many of whom were then killed; and that the American economy was built on the backs of enslaved Africans; and that generations of Asian and European immigrants came and were exploited too; and that the United States government has been involved in dominating, exploitive practices around the world for many, many years?
However, I was commenting—or contemplating commenting—on Al Green. What is the use of criticism? It can help us to see things more clearly—the forest and the trees; and to hear the sounds within, and beyond, including music and lyrics.
Al Green’s Greatest Hits (Hi Records/The Right Stuff, 1995) and Love Is Reality (Word/Epic, 1992), are two of my favorite recordings. In the songs collected on Al Green’sGreatest Hits, Al Green is a man ready for companionship and commitment in “Tired of Being Alone,” fervently sexual in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me), wise with realism in “Love and Happiness,” and given to affirmations of his personal magic and its limits in “I Can’t Get Next to You.” He confesses practical and loving gratitude in “Look What You Done for Me,” and the most soulful proposal I have ever heard in “Let’s Get Married.” The legendary—even notorious, as sometimes misheard—“Belle” is a song in which he gives up pursuit of love, sex, and money for his god (some people mistakenly thought Green was talking about giving up a woman for a man, rather than his god). I am moved not by Al Green’s faith, but by his passion.
Is praise the only response to an artist distinguished by unique talent and years’ long love? Are there things that cannot be said about him? Are there things that should not ever be said?
I suppose one should not say that James Baldwin’s long essay on Richard Wright, “Alas, Poor Richard,” is lamentable and telling, and while it doesn’t say very nice things about Wright, it says worse things about Baldwin. The piece is in poor taste, may be even an act of betrayal, and it’s certainly one of emotional and intellectual confusion—something it took me years to see, so enamored of Baldwin’s style was I—but the charges that Baldwin levels against Wright—based on the observation that Wright was intellectually and artistically ambitious—suggest that Baldwin had unconscious or at best confused assumptions about the limits of African-American intelligence and freedom. One comment after another is a complaint by Baldwin that Wright did not act like a predictable, small-minded black man.
I suppose one should not say that scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, admirable and remarkable in many ways, have received the kind of institutional support that would lead one to think they could be producing work to rival the greatest thinkers in history: why aren’t they? Do the academies that give them shelter and support also inhibit their creativity?
I suppose one should not confess to finding many African-American men often incapable of independent thought—of thought not endorsed by a gang or a group—especially if one is oneself an African-American man, born on the piece of geography known as America to people thought to have come from another land, known as Africa. (It is culture—music, dance, stories, and inherited ideas that must be studied and, if found entertaining or useful, shared: whether, African, American, or African-American: and then one can begin the task of thinking or seeking new ideas.)
I suppose it’s not a pleasant thing for others if one draws attention to the inclination of society to scapegoat individuals, especially when that seems a favorite social pastime. (The most dangerous thing in the world may be when people who do not know, like, respect, or understand you have power over you.)
I suppose one should not say that there are all kinds of attitudes and ideas floating around and we can end up endorsing any of them out of a need to affirm something. Or that when things are not going well and we want a situation to come to an end, we might end up introducing destructive elements from our past—things that brought other situations to a close—in order to end the immediate situation. I don’t suppose one should ever admit that.
I suppose that one should never draw attention to the fact that people who are crude think crudeness is natural, just as people who are ignorant find ignorance natural—and those people consider their limitations marks of authenticity: and they find intelligence and refinement unnatural, inauthentic, and rebuke them.
But, I was talking about Al Green, the great Al Green—and everything’s not connected—is it? Or is it all part of culture? All part of our attempts to make meaning of human existence? I was talking about Al Green, the great Al Green.
On Love Is Reality Al Green presents contemporary songs of spiritual belief, and they are quick and rousing affirmations, full of the excitement of faith, but also with a slow, reflective recollection of pain, and never without conviction—this is who I am (he suggests)—and the album works as friendly instruction and joyful sharing.
Al Green’s Love Is Reality and, of course, his Greatest Hits are superior collections to Everything’s OK. On Everything’s OK, the first song is the title song, “Everything’s OK,” and it has a soft percussive beat and horns that remind me of a 1970s television variety show as much as anything else. Green’s vocal is soft and except for the lack of passion, it cannot be faulted. Green does a few vocal tricks—sighs, growls—but they do not produce, here, their celebrated effect. The second song, an interpretation of the long-time popular song “You Are So Beautiful,” suggests one avenue down which this entire collection might have gone (but instead of standards, most of the songs onEverything’s OK are written by producer Willie Mitchell and Green). “You Are So Beautiful” is given a slow, careful rendition; and between the familiarity of the song and the unique quality of Green’s voice, it is hard to resist. Green’s inflections and improvised phrases, and his deep forthright declamations and high-voiced tenderness, work to give the song the sound of sincere statement. The third song, “Build Me Up,” a song about an up-and-down love, has a narrator, Mr. Green, acclaiming his love as great, and the rhythm of the song is strong, full of forward marching and quick turns. “Perfect to Me” is also a declaration of devotion, and it has a spare arrangement that may be the most effective kind of presentation of Al Green in recent years. (Similar arrangements are on Love Is Reality.) Al Green’s ballads have drama—they seem to take place not only between a man and a woman in a very private place and time, but between souls on a higher plane. He sings, “You’re perfect to me/ More than my eyes can see/ You know something, you’re the only thing/ that’s on my mind.” There’s a chanting chorus with call-and-response voices that is well arranged and affecting in “Nobody But You,” though the chorus is not singing much more than “nobody but you baby”—it works.
“Real Love” is another slow song declaring love, and by now, song six, the theme is redundant. There’s something to be said for a varied repertory, for singers pursuing songs that not only have diverse rhythms but various themes. Songs can be found—or written—that are about birth, illness, death, the dangers and pleasures and uses of nature, social conflict, social hope, and philosophical themes. Should I say that? Are some things unsayable? Should we ever say that people whose interests are narrow are suspicious of those whose interests are broad? Should we admit how much society depends on cliché and stereotype? Should anyone ever say that we do not go to culture because of a failure of politics, but, rather, we have politics, and war, because of the failure of culture, which is multiple forms of communication? Or, that while poverty is hard—for the lack of choices and resources, and for the narrowing of aesthetic appreciation and emotional response—the attitude of other people, of people with money, is harder than poverty—should that be said? Or that the lack of recognition of gender when someone doesn’t perform his masculinity or her femininity, not doing anything to draw attention to or to affirm gender, often confuses people; and sometimes the unemphatic male, without being feminine, may be called she, and the unemphatic female, without being masculine, may be called he: the observers’ confusion is so deep, the outrage so vivid. (There are sounds that come out of Al Green’s throat in song that might get him beaten up if he were an ordinary man making those same sounds on a street in a rough neighborhood.) Should I just stay on topic—with the music? Was that the topic? Isn’t ambiguity only tolerable in music, in forms of art? Is that where freedom from social judgment is to be found? But when art and philosophy are mediocre, and do nothing but rehearse and replicate what is already believed, are artists and thinkers to blame, or must the gatekeepers, the producers and publishers, share the blame?
“I Can Make Music” is the seventh song on Al Green’s Everything’s OK. It has a delicious bluesy opening, with a somewhat attractively heavy beat, and horns, and the musical landscape is interesting enough so the recurrence of love as a theme is not distractingly dull. Green’s phrasing—half-spoken and half-sung—is appealing.
“Be My Baby” is a return to the 1970s variety show sound as Green asks someone to be his baby. (Is there ever a good time to talk about one’s dissatisfactions with undependable friends and outrageous bosses? Friends who don’t call, who won’t do anything interesting? Bosses who are incapable of providing guidance or support or reward; who think that you exist to listen to explications of their moral values or sex lives? I suppose one should not crown such an impolitic confession with the conclusion that the only allegiances worth observing are based on affection, intelligence, sensitivity, talent, and truth?)
“Magic Road” has a slightly bluesy something, a soulful sound; and it’s possible that the strongest part of the Reverend Green’s music may be his continuous but subtle connection to the blues; and this, “Magic Road,” is one of the strongest pieces in Everything’s OK set of songs. Green sings, “Down this magic road/ You can have anything you want/ And leave out the things you don’t/ On this magic road/ What is this that I see? / What a mystery/ What a time to be/ On this magic road.”
“I Wanna Hold You” is uptempo, with a good arrangement—various rhythms, with what sounds like stringed instruments as well as horns—but I’m disappointed by the repeated simple lyrics: “I’d like to hold you, hold you,/ I hope you don’t mind if I hold you.” And the eleventh song, “Another Day,” is even too ordinary, too pedestrian, for comment. May I say that about the work of a genius, Al Green? I’ve said it. I have said it.
The last song, the twelfth song, “All the Time,” has Al Green crooning—soft murmurings—and he is charming when he croons, even when the lyrics and music aren’t distinguished by invention or depth.
About the author: Daniel Garrett is a longtime New York resident, and his essay on Diana Ross’s career, as well as his iconography of figures such as David Bowie, John Coltrane, and Caetano Veloso appeared on Offscreen.com. Garrett’s review of Anita Baker’s anthology, The Best of Anita Baker, appeared on AllAboutJazz.com, his review of Annie Lennox’s Bare on PopMatters.com. His commentary on the work of Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, the Isley Brothers, and Sinead O’Connor have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. His work has also appeared in The African, American Book Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.