Al Green, from Forrest City, Arkansas, has risen from obscurity to fame with a rapidity that is astonishing even by the standards of the mercurial music industry. His unusually expressive voice, and the simple, spare arrangements of producer Willie Mitchell, fit together with the kind of seamless perfection that characterized the Redding/Cropper collaboration. Green's records sound like they were bound to happen; for the listener who digs soul music, the fact that two-and-a-half million people have bought the single version of "Let's Stay Together" can only be the icing on a very tasty cake.
The flexibility of Green's voice is something to marvel at. He can croon, shout, scat, rise to the smoothest of falsettos, and throw in the funkiest growls, all in the course of a single tune. A debt to Sam Cooke, and to Otis Redding, is evident from time to time, but Green's overall approach, his particular sound, is consistently his own. The fact that he writes or cowrites most of his material, and gets such sympathetic backing from the Memphis musicians who work at Hi, helps explain the flow and unified feeling of both his albums, but still one suspects that only Green could have pulled it off.
Al Green Gets Next To You is a damn-near-perfect LP, a funky LP, and for all its diversity a consistent LP. The new album is even more homogeneous, somewhat mellower; and the title tune dominates it in the same way "Satisfaction" dominated Out of Our Heads. The comparison is made even more apt by the fact that London Records, Hi's parent company, has sold as many copies of "Let's Stay Together" as they sold of "Satisfaction."
The only problem with making a single that achieves the status of an instant classic is making an album that doesn't sound shallow by comparison. The Let's Stay Together LP fares far better than the majority of albums built around single hits. In fact, the first side, which begins with the Monster, manages to maintain a steady groove and a high level right on through to the last cut, "Old Time Lovin'," which has a warm, enveloping vocal and some of the best chop-rhythm guitar this side of heaven.
The second side has one of the album's very best songs, Green's "It Ain't No Fun To Me," which starts out like a funky blues and builds into a steamrolling shouter that won't quit. It also has the album's only disappointing cut, a six-minutes-plus version of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." Green sings it beautifully, and the string arrangement is tasteful and as minimal in its way as the understated playing of the Hi studio band. But the song is extended to the point where its mellowness becomes a kind of slow nod into unconsciousness, and what started out sounding like sweet soul music leaves a burnt metal aftertaste of muzak. This in itself isn't so bad; what's scary is that the press release accompanying the album plays the song up as if it were the highlight of the set.
If this song is the beginning of a trend in Al Green's music, away from the soulfully mellow and into the laid-back banal, then it's an instance of a trend that seems particularly endemic to the Memphis scene. Both Sun and Stax built their reputations on a series of country-simple records that sold precisely because they were so much more vital, visceral, and pure than anything the competition had to offer. In both cases, the companies went downhill when they adapted the excesses of the competition they had so recently superceded. In order to keep their essentially simple formulas from starting to sound like the same old thing, they added strings, brass arrangements, and vapid material from the hit parade, and expanded their operations to the point where a distinctive one-studio, one-band sound could no longer be maintained. The point is that it was not only the connoisseur listeners and hard-core fans who suffered; the companies and their artists suffered economically as well.
Happily, it hasn't happened to Al Green and to Hi Records, at least not yet. Their position in the vanguard of a new resurgence of Memphis music is both enviable and almost frighteningly exposed. The world will be watching to see whether the Green/Mitchell team can deliver new treasures, and go on to even greater successes, without sacrificing the just-right balance, the purity, the unity of Green's first two albums. Meanwhile, Let's Stay Together is, like its predecessor, an indispensable treat.