The Romance of the Masculine: Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’ Night and Unplugged

By Daniel Garrett

Maxwell, BLACKsummers’ Night
(Songs by Musze and Hod David)
Produced by Hod David and Musze
Columbia/Sony, 2009

Maxwell, Unplugged
Produced (and written) by Musze
Columbia/Sony, 1997

Maxwell’s singing is fervent, scaling high and low in the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Prince; and in a song about sexual addiction, “Bad Habits,” the first song on Maxwell’s album BLACKsummers’ Night, Maxwell sings, “I want you to prove it to me in the nude,” nearly matching Gaye and Prince in provocation.  Whereas Marvin Gaye’s responses to sex, spirituality, and politics were rooted in both egocentricity and lucid social awareness, rooted in a compelling idiosyncratic perspective, and Prince’s interpretations of the same subjects too frequently seemed conventional or shallowly topical regarding spirituality and politics, and Prince—with his rare gift for melody and rhythm— seemed to represent sex as the energetic work of automatons programmed by voyeurs, Maxwell has worked himself toward a serious and even somber  vision, though he does not yet convey a broad, complex view of society.  In the song “Cold,” Maxwell compares a woman to the chill of climate change, the way male songwriters and poets often have made women other (alien, evil).  However, in “Pretty Wings,” which became one of the most popular songs as soon as it was heard, Maxwell sings of an unhappy love (“I had to leave, I had to live”), in which both lovers seem to have been in error.  It is a light, brassy ballad, with Maxwell’s passionate and tender singing.  It was one of the few songs to break through the gloom during the summer of the great Michael Jackson’s death.  It offered evidence, if any were needed, that the tradition to which Jackson belonged would continue.  Maxwell’s music mixes sex and sadness and anger, mixes rhythms and tempos, mixes the entertaining and the serious, as does the work of Michael Jackson.  Maxwell suggested years ago the continuance of tradition when he made his mark on the musical scene in the 1990s, about the same time as performers such as D’Angelo, Dionne Farris, Toni Braxton, and a few other attractive, smart, and talented performers, but few of us then knew how embattled that tradition would become, threatened by the quixotic ways of the music industry, the competition of other genres, and the questionable taste of the public.  Maxwell himself went away for many years, and BLACKsummers Night marks his return; and it is a welcomed return.  On the nine-song set of songs BLACKsummers’ Night by Maxwell, in the fast-paced song “Help Somebody,” Maxwell takes a hard look at self and the need to be a better, more generous and peaceful person; and in a lyric that moves into more speculative territory, he declares, “If you see the future, ask it if I’m there.”  One imagines Maxwell will be part of the future as he has been part of the past.  I hope that.

When Maxwell did his set of acoustic songs, Unplugged, a bit over a decade ago, one thought less of tradition than of the excitement of new talent (fresh, sexy, good).  In that performance recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May 1997, a slim, brown Maxwell, capable of beatific smiles, demonstrated the range of his taste by including songs by Kate Bush and Trent Reznor.  The concert began with a composition in which Maxwell repeated in a beautiful high voice the phrase “It’s on the hush only you and I will know,” an instance when the current moment seemed bound with something old, when entertainment was also ritual, when something intimate was able to be shared with the public.  Maxwell showed that the masculine need not deny sensitivity.  (I am reminded that the use of a high voice by men such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and music groups such as the Temptations and Earth, Wind and Fire, has connoted intense feeling, movement into a different state of being.)  At the Brooklyn Academy, when Maxwell sang “The Lady Suite,” a composition with a muscular musical and vocal arrangement, supported by a low-voiced chorus and effective trumpet, Maxwell seemed to offer a lusty proposal of marriage to the whole audience, making explicit a great entertainer’s appeal and promise of enduring commitment, of enduring pleasure.  Yet, it was his performance of the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work” that was the concert’s bravest, most imaginative, most shining gesture.  Sung in a delicate, mournful voice, that was an expression of empathy and also aesthetic mastery: the song could be about the birth of a child or the end of a relationship, but it is a song that gives appreciation for a woman and regret for the things left unsaid and undone.

“Whenever Wherever Whatever,” a love song co-written with Stuart Matthewman, was part of the Unplugged concert, and opened with a cello and harp and featured a saxophone; and it was a collaboration indicating Maxwell was aligning himself with a musical contingent at once bohemian, elegant, and popular.  In “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” a song arranged by Ali Shaheed Muhammad, a song which has a melodious swing, a woman is presented as a fulfilled dream.  The Trent Reznor “Gotta Get: Closer” about a violently intense relationship—or, violently intense desires for a relationship—has Maxwell singing with confident exultation,  and he turns the song into light funk then gospel music and returns it to rock before moving on again.  The Unplugged concert is a document of how alive and how hopeful Maxwell could be.

“When I’m here with you, the world stops for me,” Maxwell sings in “Stop the World,” from BLACKsummers’ Night, a song that has a guitar interlude amid soft, plangent modern music.  It is an attempt to maintain a certain romanticism but Maxwell is less optimistic than in years past.  That changed perspective goes with the recent photographs of Maxwell, in which he looks handsome but older and somewhat sadder.  It would be fascinating to know precisely what aspects of the world have affected his sensibility.  Is it only love, or have social issues also done their damage?  How much has Maxwell’s philosophy changed?  The song that follows “Stop the World” is “Love You,” about the pursuit of an undependable lover.  An unhappy person—seemingly, a disturbed person—makes the narrator unhappy and he asks to be released from that, wanting a better relationship—and for the other person to be happier too, in the song “Fistful of Tears.”  Such similarity of theme among some of the songs gives the album BLACKsummers’ Night a certain texture.  The inclination to face facts and foibles, the desire for growth and maturity, and the willingness to attempt hard choices, are perceptible.  However, in “Playing Possum,” the narrator asks a lover who ignores him to notice, to respond—at least, that is one way of reading the song; and, another interpretation could be that the beloved is dead and the narrator cannot accept the fact.  The album BLACKsummers’ Night closes with an instrumental piece: it could be a release into a realm that words cannot travel, but it—with quick drumming and guitar explorations—seems merely a chance, a place, for us to begin returning to our own lives and concerns.  I hope that Maxwell’s future work will not take as long to appear as this collection.

Maxwell is not the first man of color Daniel Garrett has profiled who embodies admirable qualities of musical temperament and skill.  Daniel Garrett is a writer born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School of Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio; and his writing work has appeared in American Book Review, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, Option, Offscreen, Pop Matters, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.  He has written about Louis Armstrong, George Benson, John Coltrane, Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington, Al Green, Ben Harper, Van Hunt, Al Jarreau, K’naan, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Youssou N’Dour, Aaron Neville, Smokey Robinson, Allen Toussaint, and Stevie Wonder, among others.