I start out with a prejudice against any Motown album containing songs like "Yesterday," "Groovin'," and "Abraham, Martin and John" but Marvin Gaye's superlative vocal stylings almost bring this one off. Though any song gains distinction when sung by Marvin Gaye, and any album of his is a pleasure to listen to, his latest would be better if its more memorable songs were livelier and its livelier songs more memorable.
Produced by Norman Whitfield who has given us "Grapevine" and guided Gladys Knight and the Temptations to distinguished efforts in recent years, the album consists largely of already known songs, Motown and otherwise, plus some new Whitfield-Strong compositions. The arrangements, featuring Whitfield's interesting rhythms and bass lines and his sparing but effective use of the guitar, are uniformly tasteful and well conceived, and the psychedelic touches are applied less heavily here than on the Tempts' Puzzle People. But many of the songs, especially the pop-rock standards, are done up in a way that is too slow and light, with Marv forced into a high register that makes his vocals come off sounding a little cute and artificial. Where the tempo isn't too slow it's too fast, detracting from some of the otherwise stronger cuts. On "Cloud Nine," as on "Don't You Miss Me," the hectic pace makes Marv spit out the words at an uncomfortable rate.
Only on the title song does everything come together for a great performance. Rhythmically and instrumentally reminiscent of "Grapevine," this hit single seemed to me a pale copy of that classic until I heard the heaviness of the Tempts' version, which made me appreciate Marv's wonderful delicacy here. What makes this a lesser thing than "Grapevine" is, again, the high register, the less full-bodied quality of the vocal. The later single, "How Can I Forget," was destined to bomb. Fine as it is, the song is so short and its interesting effects so crammed together that the arrangement seems too compressed and lacking in definition.
Among the remakes, "Yesterday" starts beautifully, as if a really sensitive interpretation is coming up, and for the most part this comes off, though it is marred by word repetition and other gimmicks. "Cloud Nine" seems to me completely the Tempts' song, made for their new multi-voiced style, and Marv is simply outgunned. But with "I Wish It Would Rain" he rescues the tune that for me was the Tempts' nadir. What had seemed a dead song now brings this album to life as does nothing else but the title song and "So Long."
But are a few superior cuts enough for a great singer and a leading writer-producer? As soul albums go this is a good one, but it is both more gaudy and less solid than Marv's last album, M.P.G., which was a great one, with a degree of substance, subtlety, excitement, and inspiration not found so consistently here.