As a comeback album, Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love is remarkably arrogant: it simply picks up from 1973’s Let’s Get It On as if only ten minutes, and not a confusing ten years, had elapsed since Gaye hit his commercial peak. But make no mistake: this record, which has become the biggest crossover hit of the singer’s career, is a comeback for Gaye, whose last couple of albums, despite their funkster defenders, committed the unpardonable sin of tedium.
Midnight Love is anything but boring. It has the rhythmic tension, melodic delicacy and erotic resilience of Gaye’s greatest music, and it extends those attributes by applying contemporary synthesizer gimmickry judiciously and soulfully. Gaye plays about eighty percent of the instruments here himself, and his synthesizer work, as well as his drumming, is a revelation. And everything here, including the ribald greeting-card verse of the lyrics, underscores the relentless erotic obsession that’s at the core of Gaye’s concerns.
But Midnight Love isn’t as truly ambitious a record as Gaye’s greatest album, What’s Going On (1971), was. In the disintegration of his marriage and his eventual divorce, Gaye seems also to have experienced a separation from the social concerns that fueled that music, and as a result, his themes have narrowed: eroticism, on the one hand (“Sexual Healing” is a sort of polemic for the power of rampant humping, which is strange, since Gaye claims to have abstained for the past three years), and an obligatory, somewhat desperate nod to Jesus (in the liner notes and the dedication that opens the final track).
On the other hand, Midnight Love is a consequential record, a fact that has something to do with another kind of ambition. In a period when most performers are content to stake out a narrow corner of the marketplace, Marvin Gaye demands center stage and is determined to hold it. That Gaye not only commands our attention so forcefully but that he commands it so effortlessly should remind us that he has been one of our most underrated musical forces for a long time (probably since “Pride and Joy” in 1963). No one who hears “Sexual Healing” will doubt this. But then, no one who has heard “Hitchhike,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” “Let’s Get It On,” “Inner City Blues” or any of about a dozen others should ever have forgotten it.