Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new. These, from two of the Corporation’s Finest, represent a subversive concept, allowed only to producers the overseerstars of Motown’s corporate plantation as long as they didn’t get too uppity. Both Gaye and Wonder have been relatively independent at Motown, their careers following their own fluctuations outside the mainstream studio trends, but these latest albums are departures even for them.
Both are self-produced and largely self-composed (Wonder working with his wife Syreeta, Gaye with six others including his wife Anna) personal “statements.” For the first time on the label, both albums contain printed lyrics. Another unexpected precedent: after all these years. Motown has begun to give credit to its studio musicians, listing 39 of them on Gaye’s album and acknowledging for the first time that such people really exist.
Unfortunately, awkwardness easily slipped over in the flow of a song is painfully evident when that song is reduced to printed lines. Although both albums suffer from this over-exposure of lyric stiffness, Gaye’s work is much more supple and conversational ultimately smoothing itself out on what is a very fine record while Wonder’s is too self-conscious and edges into pretentiousness (“Suffocate the new high Ride the thorny mule that cries ‘Dig your grave and step right in'”) the recently-developed Curtis Mayfield Syndrome becoming nearly incomprehensible when sung.
This is not Stevie Wonder’s first self-produced album he did his last, Signed. Sealed and Delivered. as tight and soul-satisfying as any to have come out of Motown but clearly Where I’m Coming From is an attempt to establish a more completely personal, idiosyncratic style and project it on his own terms. Already one of the most inventive, expressive singers performing today, Stevie apparently wanted an opportunity to loosen up outside the confines of the typical Motown single. But he blew it. Not only are the lyrics sadly undistinguished, but much of the production and arrangement is unusually self-indulgent and cluttered with effects that too often obscure the utter virtuosity of Wonder’s singing.
At its worst, in “Do Yourself A Favor” and “I Wanna Talk to You,” both more than five minutes, Wonder gets so hung up on exploring this virtuosity that he runs it into the ground. Failing to realize that an extravagant vocal style draws a great deal of its strength from a contrasting, coolly-controlled arrangement which will set it off to greatest effect, Wonder tends to sink everything in thick studio veneer; the use of doubletracking for vocal self-accompaniment is especially overused.
The most successful cuts, “Think of Me as Your Soldier” and “If You Really Love Me,” are short, unassuming love songs, pleasant vehicles for the Wonder charm. Here his off-hand intensity, his intimate heavy breathing, his joyous yelps stand out clearly as exciting elements of a warm, sensuous style. In the end, though, even vibrant vocals fail to carry the album beyond its own excesses. Quite a disappointment.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is an even more ambitious effort. Where Stevié was content to deliver his messages — however blurred — in three or four songs, Gaye has designed his album as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing.
At first this sameness in sound persisting from one song to the next is boring, but gradually the concept of the album takes shape and its wholeness becomes very affecting. The style is set in the first cut, “What’s Going On,” with its sweet horn opening line; Gaye’s soft, simmering voice reflecting in on itself beautifully from two or three tracks; the contrast of congas and strings; the breaks an exciting jumble of street-corner jive and scatting. As they are throughout, the lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album’s mood.
“What’s Happening Brother” picks up from “What’s Going On,” strengthening its impact by making its situation more specific: a brother returning from Vietnam and trying to get his bearings on the block again, shifting between questions about old hang-outs and fears that there’s no work anywhere: “Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land.” “Mercy, Mercy Me” is one of the most bearable ecology songs, a genre that doesn’t seem to inspire especially subtle or intelligent lyrics; Gaye’s are inoffensive and the song itself is lovely. Considerably changed from the version that had backed the 45 of “What’s Going On,” “God Is Love” still has a strange attraction. It begins, “Don’t go and talk about my father/God is my friend,” and kinda grows on you.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” ends the album and is one of its finest cuts. Again, an effective combination of latin drumming and strings with multitracked vocals make the most of direct lyrics: “Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life/This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’/No, no baby, this ain’! livin’.” Taking the album full circle, “Inner City Blues” blends back into “What’s Going On,” confirming itself nicely.
One or two other cuts don’t hold together quite as well (“Right On,” the longest number, misses) but the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.