At heart, James Brown’s first album since his parole from a South Carolina correctional facility seeks to evoke the R&B warmth of the earliest stage of his career. Fans who lately have traveled first-class through Star Time, Polydor’s four-disc retrospective of Brown’s extraordinary career, will notice the absence of the fierce minimalist funk that Brown dreamed up in the early Seventies.
Instead, admirers will discover a chipper set of eight tunes, five of them arranged by Brown himself, all lushly assembled from gospel-style back-ground choruses, blues-drenched drums, Southern-soul horns, crisp guitars and sheer guts. The centerpiece of Love Over-Due is, significantly, a killer midnight swing through Hank Ballard’s “Teardrops on Your Letter,” wherein Brown’s singing could serve as a model of vocal reserve and candor, subtlety and fire.
Never weakly sentimental, Love Over-Due never sounds tossed off, either. Its first half is right on its toes, from the slapping guitar groove of “(So Tired of Standing Still We Got to) Move On” to the plush, old-fashioned pleadings of “Show Me” or the syncopations — atypical for this album — of “Dance, Dance, Dance to the Funk.” During the second half, though, Brown and the other writers and arrangers he favors pursue ideas that, as distinctive as they are, never manage to jell. There’s a tune (“Standing on Higher Ground”) that exists solely for the sake of an upbeat chorus; a romantic duet (“Later for Dancing”) that goes for some mix of suavity and wildness, yet gets neither; a Caribbean-like pop hymn, “It’s Time to Love (Put a Little Love in Your Heart),” whose Latin fireworks come straight out of nowhere.
Because this is James Brown, it’s difficult to write off such moments as simply rote, bizarre or abrupt. And there’s a strong resonance to the notion of Brown, not long a free man, recording these undaunted, uncomplaining tunes in Miami. Brown, for that matter, could be the first artist to be put into a retro mood by the circumstances of his life, rather than the far less interesting, and more typical, technophobia. But these later songs do, nonetheless, aggravate the album’s lack of consistency.
Judged by the overwhelming sweep of Star Time, James Brown’s willingness to abandon R&B warmth for radical funk secured his standing as one of America’s great pop geniuses. On Love Over-Due, when Brown goes the other way, it makes for a warm album with occasional flashes of more intense heat.