Reggae in this country tends to attract rabid, cultish, blanket admiration. The sanctification of the form doesn’t always allow that much of the stuff can be, well, boring. But the wild range in reggae’s quality is actually one of the strongest arguments in favor of the legendary Bob Marley — he wasn’t passionate, moving and disciplined because he was a reggae artist but because he was Bob Marley. And 1974’s Natty Dread proved for all time the possi-bilities of the genre.
Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone (later Wailer) had just departed from Marley’s band; Marley brought in a passel of new backing musicians and installed the I-Threes, a female vocal trio that included his wife, Rita, to play shimmering Greek chorus to his omniscient narrator. The record unspools like a pristine jam session, a huge range of instruments weaving in and out according to the emotional tenor of the moment — drum fills, cowbells and a thoughtful, sometimes ominous bass piling up the sonic richness.
Beyond the lilting charm of the ballad “No Woman, No Cry,” which has become a reggae classic and cover staple, what Natty Dread evinces is Marley’s remarkable musical control. “Lively Yourself Up” is cool and stripped down — every guitar note and percussive shake seems necessary. “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block)” folds in sidelines of harmonica and stalls for brief drum turns between the regulation loping, circular beat and the muselike affirmations of the I-Threes. “So Jah Seh,” a taut profession of Rastafarian faith, does not resist the earthly pleasures of a big horn sound and thoughtful piano playing.
All of reggae’s signature forces are in vibrant play. Its charismatic political rebelliousness is trickily conveyed on “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” in which Marley plays double agent, posing as the good-time partymaster while rallying the desperate troops with a vocal line that bends at the tips like the branches of a weeping willow. Like qawwali music and American blues, reggae folds in sensual with spiri-tual ecstasies. The blueslike “Bend Down Low” is grounded by a grouchy pop-up rhythm while Marley and the I-Threes sing ethereally, even merrily, with their eyes on the heavens. Natty Dread wrangled the seemingly unreconcilable impulses of reggae — its economy of line and expansiveness of spirit — into an intense evocation of a people’s boundless capacities for faith, anger and love.