Al Green’s latest LP would almost qualify as a concept album were it not for the fact that Green has been mining the rhetoric of romance ever since his first hits. If Al Green Is Love contains any surprises, they come in the treatment of his material, all of it original for a change. The kind of love portrayed in “Rhymes” is no simple Moon June affair, and “Love Ritual” summons eros as a frenzy of orgiastic salvation. Languid, serpentine phrases issue in unsettling shrieks, garbled fragments: “I wanna sanctify with you baby.” There is a troubled urgency to Green’s singing here that defies the epithet sweet.
It also dispels any notion of Green as a hostage of candied formulas. True, he is willing and able to dissect fluff; predictably. Al Green Is Love contains its fair share of soporific pleasantries. But Green, with the help of the Memphis Hi Rhythm Band, often manages to transfigure the most benign sentiments and endow them with an undercurrent of tension, as if the clichés concealed a hidden cargo.
It’s a tricky game to play. As “Take Me to the River,” his most recent blues/gospel effort (on Explores Your Mind), convincingly proved, Green thrives on a wide range of material. Moreover, formulaic ballads frequently elicit desultory performances.
But Green, like many great figures in rock, is conservative. With “Tired of Being Alone,” he hit on a style which he’s stuck to. The style is founded on Green’s approach to romantic themes. His hesitant, understated enunciation, imperceptibly shifting to falsetto, coupled with the hypnotic rhythmic rapport he establishes with his bands evoke a bittersweet emotionality. And all these elements appear on “Tired of Being Alone,” captured in the spontaneity of their first creation.
If it seems unlikely that Green will ever cut a record as fresh as “Tired of Being Alone,” it’s equally true that the refinement of a style brings pleasures of its own. Despite some weak spots, Al Green Is Love is undoubtedly Green’s best album in several years, thanks to a rare unity of feeling and mood, and a refinement of style.
The record is alternately beguiling and bedeviled. Setting the pace throughout is the marvelous Memphis Hi Rhythm Band who have become perfect accompanists. Charles Hodges’s organ alternately purrs warmly or hovers ominously; Teenie Hodges’s guitar bubbles discreetly in the background, only to unfurl a stark blues lick (listen to his playing on “The Love Sermon”). When the Memphis Horns join in, it’s almost possible to ignore the watery strings that Green and coproducer Willie Mitchell insist on using (although they, too, have become a part of the style).
The focus remains on Green himself. With an assurance verging on mannerism, he caresses, then strangles every phrase, effortlessly twisting it to suit his fancy. He can be soothing and shy or threatening and coy. On “The Love Sermon,” his choked intensity says worlds about love wordlessly. When he overdubs a dryly miked falsetto harmony part the effect is subtly electrifying: There are few singers who have the equipment to rival this kind of impact.
Some critics nonetheless persist in arguing that Green lacks the virtuosity and fire of the great soul stylists of the Sixties, such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. It is an inappropriate comparison. Following Sam Cooke, another great figure of black music in the Sixties, Green has struggled to establish a broadly based presence within American popular music, appealing to suburbanites as well as inner city and rural blacks; to this end, he has self-consciously shed the trappings of conventional soul, although his style remains steeped in the blues. And unlike Pickett, say, Green has succeeded in fashioning a resilient image that has left its mark on the well-scrubbed sentiments his lyrics convey.
Moreover, Green’s image is nothing if not ambiguous. The violence that dogged the private life of Cooke, as well as Green, is not accidental either. Beneath the composed exterior, there is a consuming drive at work that ultimately must inform the music itself. Perhaps that is one basis of Green’s power to fascinate, both as a man and as a singer. For if “Al Green is love,” then love, as “Love Ritual” hints, is a far more complex — and risky — emotion than the man’s satin shirts and demure smile would suggest.