Maxwell is throwing stones. It’s an unexpectedly violent phrase to describe someone who’s made a career of soothing tensions with soft, intimate songs like 1996’s “Sumthin’ Sumthin” and 1998’s “Matrimony: Maybe You.” But two years after his last studio album, the singer is taking on a decidedly more active, and activist, voice. “The Glass House,” the short film he released last night in conjunction with his new single “We Never Saw It Coming,” is a complex love story set in apocalyptic times. As the first preview of Night, the upcoming album that will conclude the trilogy he began with 2009’s BLACKsummers’night and 2016’s blackSUMMERS’night – as well as concluding his contract with longtime label Columbia Records – the new song and video are an intriguing hint of where Maxwell is headed next. He’s always been great at inspiring us to get active with each other emotionally, but this latest work is about inspiring people to get active globally.
The short film – directed by Bush+Renz, the same team that worked on the videos for Jay-Z’s 4:44 – opens with a glass-encased house up in the hills and slides indoors, where a black couple, played by actress Yomi Abiola and Maxwell himself, sit at their dining room table. The setting is intimate but somber as Abiola tearfully asks, “What are you saying? I don’t understand. We should have loved more. We should have loved harder. I guess none of that matters now. It’s too late.” In an emailed statement, Maxwell explains that the film reflects how “self-absorbed with acquiring wealth” our society is, “completely ignor[ing] our spiritual duty to one another,” and cites his conversations with iconic artist-activist Harry Belafonte as helping inspire his latest creative turn. The affluent couple in “The Glass House” start off aloof to the circumstances of those literally beneath them, before ultimately realizing how little their material gains matter as they watch a mushroom cloud on the horizon through their expensive floor-to-ceiling windows.
“The Glass House” makes use of both the presence and absence of sound to get its ideas across. There’s a constant tension as Bush+Renz use Maxwell’s voice to illuminate our relationship with the world. At 45, his voice still has that bedroom-chamber softness, but in this song it crackles with something new, a tinge of anger and disappointment. “The Glass House” feels at once like a resignation and a wake-up call about where we are now. “We’ve never been so divided/Scattered and spread…religions clashing/The world is asking,” he sings. At the end of the world, there’s only Maxwell’s voice, set against the drone of an emergency broadcast alert trilling through the city below, recriminating instead of consoling us.
In making this short film, Maxwell employs a visual style that’s jarringly different from those used by many of his musical peers. In the time around and between 2016’s blackSUMMERS’night and “We Never Saw It Coming,” black artists have released works like Solange’s A Seat At the Table, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Jay-Z’s 4:44, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer – statements that, in their own distinct ways, earnestly and urgently respond to real-world conversations about the social, emotional, mental and political conditions of black America. It might prove challenging to find room for Maxwell’s themes of nuclear war and environmental destruction at a time when everyone else is talking about mass incarceration, gun violence, trauma and the notion that true social and political freedom is still escaping black people in this country. There’s a temptation, in this context, to see Maxwell’s new
work as an almost “all lives matter” punt on political tone.
In reality, though, both the short film and the song represent a widening of how we should think about where, when, and on what terms we accept black voices as authorities. We don’t typically see black faces centered in mainstream conversations around the apocalypse. It would be a shame to overlook what Maxwell is telling us with “The Glass House.” He’s offering an important reminder that sometimes we’re too distracted to notice the literal or figurative nuclear clouds looming on the horizon. While his peers go one way, he goes another, challenging the stereotypes of what it means to be a black man with a message.