There always was a bit of the crooner in Marvin Gaye. Even at his most explicit, the singer known for his era-defining calls to enlightenment (“What’s Going On”) and his heated bedroom pleas (“Sexual Healing”) ennobled love’s pain and transformed each injury into profoundly universal music. Dripping soul but singing with an understatement that puts him closer to Frank Sinatra than to Otis Redding, Gaye made every seduction a campaign, a quest, something worth carrying the torch for.
Yet Gaye never finished the album of torch songs that was close to his heart. The Vulnerable Sessions, a collection of studio-orchestra ballads that he fussed over fornearly a decade, beginning in 1967, is a glimpse into the private aspirations of one of pop’s most anguished voices. Undertaken during a period of tremendous success (the years of What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On), these were Gaye’s between-projects attempts to establish another identity — as an old school, ultrasmooth ballad singer.
Gaye’s idea was to use — in a looser, more jazzlike context — the intricately woven multitracked lead vocals that made his hits so engrossing. Working and reworking standards as well as personal favorites, he twisted his vocals around sweet, keening string lines and squeezed fresh hurt from the already poignant melodies of such songs as Frank Loesser’s “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” and the Johnny Mandel evergreen “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
As on his well-known works, Gaye broods audibly over the meaning of his lyrics on The Vulnerable Sessions. “Funny, Not Much,” for instance, finds him mulling over the moves of an unfaithful lover until his every sigh is suffused with bitterness. Though he didn’t complete a full album of these songs, the seven restrained performances and three equally compelling alternate takes prove that Gaye could turn even the most hackneyed lounge-act tunes into forthright, spellbinding testimony.