“Let’s Get It On” is a classic Motown single, endlessly repeatable and always enjoyable. It begins with three great wah-wah notes that herald the arrival of a vintage Fifties melody. But while the song centers around classically simple chord changes, the arrangement centers around a slightly eccentric rhythm pattern that deepens the song’s power while covering it with a contemporary veneer. Above all, it has Marvin Gaye’s best singing at its center, fine background voices on the side, and a long, moody fade-out that challenges you not to play the cut again.
For the rest of the LP, Gaye uses his voice (in both lead and background) to create a dreamlike quality only slightly less surreal than he did on What’s Goin’ On, his very best record to date. But while on the earlier work he sang of the difference between his vision of God’s will and man’s life, he is currently preoccupied with matters purely secular — love and sex.
And yet he continues to transmit that same degree of intensity, sending out near cosmic overtones while eloquently phrasing the sometimes simplistic lyrics. But then that should come as no surprise from the man who sang “She makes my day a little brighter My load a little lighter She’s a wonderful one,” in a way that made it difficult to remember whether he was singing about God or woman — and whether he felt there was any difference.
The first side was co-written and co-produced by veteran rock hand Ed Townshend, and it flows with ease, the melodies sometimes underdeveloped, but Gaye’s voice, hovering around the falsetto, holding our attention and providing unique transitions in mood and style that happily bring us back to a reprise of the title cut, “Keep Gettin’ It On.”
Gaye produced the second side, and it is more daring and self-conscious. “You Sure Love to Ball” has the chant-like quality of most of the album but is overdone. What first induces a hypnotic response soon generates simple boredom, as his endless repetitions take on an unpleasantly obsessive quality. Conversely, the slow “Just to Keep You Satisfied” is too blatantly sincere. I prefer the loose sensuality of “Come Get to This,” an up-beat song with a dazzling arrangement, devoid of the simplistic elements of some of the material.
Let’s Get It On is as personal as What’s Goin’ On but lacks that album’s series of highpoints. Instead, it ebbs and flows, occasionally threatening to spend itself on an insufficiency of ideas, but always retrieved, just in time, by Gaye’s performance. From first note to last, he keeps pushing and shoving, and if he sometimes takes one step back for every two ahead, he gets there just the same — and with style and spirit to spare.
By contrast, Diana And Marvin is a producer’s showcase (there are four sets of them) with the singers serving as cogs in a wheel. The voices are well-matched, the material well-chosen (“Pledging My Love,” “Don’t Knock My Love” and “You’re My Everything”) and all technical aspect are superb.
Unfortunately, the album lacks the warmth and identity of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell and Nick Ashford-Valerie Simpson collaborations, although the latter’s influence dominates the singing. In fact, Diana Ross sounds so much like Ms. Simpson on “You’re a Special Part of Me,” itself an imitation Ashford-Simpson composition, that the “unsuspecting listener might confuse the two.
Ms. Ross gets everything across except conviction and as a result, these two cooing love birds wind up sounding unconvincing. As a result, the album never quite transcends its image of pure commercial contrivance to become an aesthetic collaboration.
But despite the lack of depth, Diana And Marvin is an entertaining album, with occasional flashes of unexpected inspiration. It isn’t as satisfying as Let’s Get It On but is infinitely superior to Touch Me in the Morning. And anything that moves Diana Ross closer to what she does best — sing well-produced, R&B pop music — deserves special consideration and a little of our patience.