Marvin Gaye has been around for a long time — ever since the beginning of Motown. He’s already earned the distinction of two albums of his own greatest hits, but it’s only since the beginning of this year that he’s achieved truly mass popularity. His version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” became the all-time best-selling single for Motown, and Marvin’s follow-up, “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” was another national number one. For some reason, Marvin has been able to escape the plague that has fallen on all of the other Motown groups — the need to include overdone sentimental songs like “The Impossible Dream” or “The Look of Love” on his albums. All of the cuts on M.P.G. are fully representative of Marvin Gaye at his best — a display of his voice against strong arrangements of top material.
The album leads off with “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” and it sounds even better in stereo than it did coming out of a car radio. The female voices backing Gaye on this song are a richly balanced setting for his own smoothly syncopated singing. Over the years Marvin Gaye has teamed with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrel for special LPs. He sounds best when he has the counterpoint of a female voice or voices singing with him.
I’m sure Marvin’s success with “Grapevine” encouraged him to do versions of other songs first recorded by Gladys Knight. Marvin’s “The End of Our Road” is outstanding and very much his own interpretation. He uses his unique falsetto to great effect and the song is very moving.
Smokey Robinson is responsible for a couple of the cuts on side two, “It’s a Bitter Pill to Swallow” and “More Than a Heart Can Stand.” Both tracks are irresistible. They also show off Marvin’s special way of presenting a lyric, as he manages to keep a song driving forward with an incredible momentum while always holding the intricacies of rhythm under control.
“I Got to Get to California” is my particular favorite; Marvin again strides through the song, building the intensity as his voice goes through an exquisite range of changes. There’s also a tribute to the Drifters with Gaye’s version of “This Magic Moment,” but Ben E. King wins hands down on this one. Marvin Gaye does not thrive on songs that require a more melodic and less staccato style of singing.
M.P.G. treats the listener to the same infectious music and subtly varied singing that made Gaye’s last two singles so popular. Since the days of “Hitch-Hike” and “Pride and Joy,” Marvin has mellowed and expanded his emotional range to include a versatile series of voices. He can bite into the words of a song, suddenly sing against the rhythm of the arrangement, and then slide into a smooth and flexible falsetto for an emphatic “oooh” or “oh yeah” or drive up to a note with an amazing burst of power.
Marvin Gaye does not aim for spectacular effects — he screams and shouts with restraint, if that’s not a contradiction. His control of the rhythm and momentum of a song is unique to him, and his specialty is still the delivery of a staccato vocal with a syncopated assurance and conviction. Judging from the way he projects the songs on this album, Marvin still “just wants to testify.”