So is there any question that when the music trades rack up their year-end charts for 1972 (and you discover that some group you never even heard of mysteriously became Top New R&B Vocal Group), the number one Male Vocalist will be Al Green? I mean is there any doubt in your mind? 1972 is Al Green’s year and he seemed to snatch it up almost effortlessly. With one hit single after another, all of them turning into a neat stack of gold if not platinum records, Green hardly lost his place on the charts, always seemed to have two or three slots on the jukebox, and now has his second album of the year.
All this would be of only passing interest if Al Green weren’t so good, so very good. Is it going too far to say he’s the only truly great male vocalist to come along since Otis Redding? He’s certainly the only black singer since Redding to approach, and in some ways go beyond, Redding’s wide popularity and appeal while developing a style at least as idiosyncratic and exciting (both Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield are taking steps in these same directions but neither have that certain ego-driven Star Quality that would qualify them as top contenders for the long-vacant Otis Redding heavyweight spot). Whether Al Green is a better singer than Otis Redding is a question that doesn’t interest me, although I prefer Green’s iridescent falsetto to Redding’s rougher, gruffer voice. To some extent, it’s a choice between sweetness and funk, and yet these qualities were hardly mutually exclusive in Redding’s work. Otis was sweet and funky; Al Green is, more and more, just sweet. The Copacabana takes its toll.
But I’m not really complaining. So let him specialize. Clearly Green drew from Redding (early Al Green picks up directly from “Dock of the Bay”) and Sam Cooke, but whatever elements of style he might have taken from these and other influences have gradually lost their definition and become instead bits and pieces of the Al Green style. This has been refined with each new album to the point where it becomes, in I’m Still in Love with You, less a style than a stylization. The technique is brilliant — the incredibly mobile vocals, carrying the songs in an intricate ebb and flow, and especially the rise of the falsetto, thinning out to almost nothing for the delivery of a particularly delicious line — but, ironically, as it’s perfected it seems more obtrusive as a technique and less acceptable as an inspiration. The first flash of lightning is always the most exciting; after that they just brighten up the landscape. Such are the problems of professionalism. Each successive Hi album has intensified and polished Green’s unique approach while it narrowed his range of material. So the songs get better (or at least stay within a few points of “Tired of Being Alone” and “Let’s Stay Together,” which would be difficult to surpass) but they also get to be more and more the same.
But like I said, I’m not complaining. Or am I? I mean I think every cut on the new album is just … great; but even after weeks of listening they blur together. The flow is nice but it’s like a lush landscape unfolding outside the car window mile after mile — after a while you begin to look for some landmark, some relief, even if it’s only a tacky hamburger stand. No hamburger stands for Al Green, though; I guess he figured we could get that greasy stuff elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean he’s turned into some kind of supper club stylist — as tasteful and empty as a napkin ring, all form and no content. You can tell by the squeals and barely-suppressed sighs of the women at the Copa that Green hasn’t lost touch with the emotional content of his songs; he keeps it right at the surface and lets it dictate every rise and fall of his voice. But at some point, some imperceptible point, getting every rise and fall of his voice just right becomes more important than making all that dynamic movement mean something. Green hasn’t reached that point, but there are intimations of its approach here. Fork in the road ahead. Or am I just full of uneasy anticipation; I’m always expecting my heros to fall so I give them a little push. Why can’t I just accept things as they are?
This is what they are: “I’m Still in Love with You” opens the album with one of Green’s more extraordinary vocals. The line, “I’m … wrapped up in your love,” delivered twice, is sung high, almost disappearing at the end of his range, and yet enveloping — the perfect vocal equivalent of being hugged tightly in someone’s arms. He stretches the word “heaven” and it shimmers or he dips his voice down low at the end of a line as if to insinuate it into every possible corner of the song. As with most Al Green songs (this one written in collaboration with drummer Al Jackson and producer Willie Mitchell), the lyrics are simple, almost unremarkable and in this case touchingly inarticulate: “Spending my days/thinkin’ ’bout you girl./Being here with you/being near with you/Can’t explain myself.” Throughout, Willie Mitchell’s production work is as consistently strong as Green’s vocals. It’s never trite, never obtrusive — none of those wedges of unrelieved production (something quite different from music) you find driven into so many other albums — and always several steps ahead of being just right. Mitchell provides a texture in his production that is the perfect complement to Green’s singing while establishing its own richness but avoids calling attention to itself with those hey-hey-aren’t-I-hot touches so many big-time producers love to indulge themselves with.
“Love and Happiness” is about my favorite new cut here (the other previously released cut, aside from the title song, is “Look What You Done for Me,” released early last spring) — after a powerful, take-your-time introduction, a very upbeat, horn-punctuated five minutes. The lyrics aren’t much, but they have a loose, elliptic quality that allows the song to drift off into all kinds of improvisatory-style things at the end. The following two cuts are lovely, almost too pretty but with a saving edge of emotion. Again, the lyrics are not exceptional but, oh god, who cares with these glowing arrangements and Al Green caressing, stroking, loving the words until they’re about to burst. On “What a Wonderful Thing Love Is,” he says “I been cryin'” with a feeling that equals Smokey Robinson’s “I’m cryin'” in “Ooo Baby Baby.” Is there anything finer? “Simply Beautiful” is more vocal exposition, very loose, slightly indulgent but so tenderly sexy it gives you shivers.
Side two doesn’t offer anything as lush as “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” from the Let’s Stay Together album. Instead, the major production number here, and the only real disappointment, is a Kris Kristofferson song, “For the Good Times” which sounds an awful lot like another Kristofferson song, “Help Me Make it Through the Night” which I’ve heard enough of. The production is itself reminiscent of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” but uncharacteristically melodramatic, even maudlin; that Edge of Night organ is particularly excessive. I also am not crazy about the way Green is double-tracked at the end, commenting on himself in a rather too gimmicky way. All this absorbs 6:27 of the second side; better they should have given the time to the opening cut, a tasty remake of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” that uses many of the same elements (organ, double-tracked vocals) to much better effect. The beat of the song is doubled-up at the same time the message is made more deep and sincere, more than a jive pick-up song. The closing song, back in a slow groove for “One of These Good Old Days,” is almost as good. Green’s voice bounces around like a superball, shooting in all directions during an extended closing in which he again plays off himself and screams “baaybeh” like no one else around.
All sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? Well it is, it is. Only get it while you can.