Heritage and Passion: Al Green’s Lay It Down

By Daniel Garrett

Al Green, Lay It Down
Produced by Al Green, James Poyser, Ahmir Thompson
Co-produced by Chalmers Alford and Adam Blackstone
Blue Note, 2008

“I just love you for yourself,” sings Al Green, answering everyone’s secret hope, just one of the lines that form a simple entreaty and pledge of love, the slow song “Lay It Down,” in which Green in the refrain encourages  a desirable person to “Put your hat on the floor, lay it down.”  Is this the longed for love or only the beginning of a seduction that may or may not be regretted later?  Green’s singing is both measured and playful (and Anthony Hamilton sings in the background).  As almost always before, Al Green’s work here throughout the album Lay It Down is much less about ideas and issues than sensibility (a soulful sensuality) and expressivity (urgent desire and exultant spirituality).   While much of the world worries about war, unemployment, a health care crisis, religious fanaticism, racial conflict, changing gender roles and civil unions versus marriage, Al Green is presenting himself as focused on the woman nearest him.   Yet, through the years Al Green has become and remains a heritage artist, someone whose work has taken a significant place in the surrounding culture.  It is not always easy to predict the artists who will be seen as important to an art form or culture: it takes years for us to live with art, years for the art to pass the rigors of personal mood and public questions, leaving some artists forgotten and others raised up.  Whether singing of love and sex or spirituality, Al Green is important.

In the collection Lay It Down, for which Green collaborates with producer Ahmir Thompson of the group the Roots and singers Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, and John Legend, Green does work that favorably calls to mind some of his famous interpretations, which included beautiful singing and memorable sighs and moans, short grunts and manly assertions.  His embellishments in song gave testimony to what he was feeling, and were received as convincing evidence: these were the common travails of love transformed into something both gritty and graceful—and, hearing what seemed a rare and honest freedom,  a lot of people themselves got naked in response, often together.

In the rambling statement of affection “Just For Me,” for which horns transverse a slow tempo, Green sings, “Why can’t you bring more love to the table? You’re driving me wild.”  The words, which are not profound, suggest an ordinary situation addressed by an extraordinary person: someone who can say what the listener wants to say and has a better chance of being heard.  A more driving beat is given to Green’s duet with Anthony Hamilton, “You’ve Got The Love I Need,” which has both guitar and strings and contains the lyric “I either love you or die,” offering an excess of romance.  However, some of the lyrics are nonsense: “smokestacks signal your love coming from my window pane” Green sings in the ballad “No One Like You,” offering an odd metaphor that Green’s voice makes acceptable (it’s like the dithering of someone in love or determined to make a sexual conquest).  Most of these songs have been written by Green with his producers and his duet partners, and are part of a shared creative project more than being one person’s private ruminations and revelations.  Love is a poetic theme and it is also a commercial ornament.  Al Green’s singing gives these songs intimacy, singularity.  Love is the concern that calls forth an audience, the concern that may be the only thing that audience has known of both genuine transcendence and serious trouble.  Is there anything left to give after love has been established, one of the songs asks: “What more do you want from my heart?” (“What More Do You Want From Me”).  Al Green can convince the listener that it is experience—surprising and thrilling, surprising and distressing—he is singing of and we can imagine the details; but is love at forty-five years of age the same as love at twenty-five or love at sixty-five, and how interesting it could be to have him specify the differences?

The song that is the heart of the album is a duet with Corrine Bailey Rae, “Take Your Time,” which creates sensual warmth.  Corinne Bailey Rae’s voice and style—she can soar high without losing richness and her low tones are gentle, mellow—and Bailey Rae’s smooth vocal movements are a complement to Green, and make his entreaties and torments and pleasures more real.  Green’s own voice reaches new heights in “Too Much,” a song about feeling overwhelmed by love, sensuously so.  The singing of John (Stephens) Legend rises and dips, similar to the manner of both Green and Bailey Rae, in Legend’s duet with Green, “Stay With Me (By the Sea).  Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend, able to hold their own talent steady and responsive in the intimidating presence of Al Green, are two performers of exciting promise, and like Anthony Hamilton they give hope that talent can survive the more discouraging aspects (assertive ignorance, financial pressure, relentless vulgarity) of contemporary culture.  Green returns alone for “All I Need,” a sung campaign of peacemaking after romantic difficulty; and with a throbbing, thrusting song, “I’m Wild About You,” featuring Green’s impassioned singing, suggesting sexual fury and determination; and “Standing In The Rain,” which Green wrote alone—and which could be an allegory or metaphor about being an artist, committed to making music in good times and bad, standing in the rain out of need and dedication: “I’m a cold, hard-working man.  See this guitar in my hand.”  What power might have been let off its leash had Al Green begun the album with that song and had all the other songs follow its particular example—humble, honest, haunting?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.