Al Green's new album will make you wish you were a better man.
As I drove around town Saturday afternoon in my brand-new '97 Lincoln Continental listening to Al Green's newest album Lay It Down, one distressing thought instantly came to my head: Damn, I wish I were a better man.
If there's one male vocalist who can make the most secure of men feel inadequate about the way he's been living his life, it's Rev. Al. Even after all these years Green still performs with all the authority of a man who has lived, who has accomplishments he's proud of and mistakes he's tried to rectify. He's fought demons he needed to control, and made enemies he eventually forgave and embraced. He's had regrets he's come to accept and loves he knew he had to let go. He's a man who has seen it all, and from the way it's laid out on Down, the ride's not over yet.
You can thank producers James Poyser and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson for giving Green another shot at musical life lessons for listeners. The duo meticulously recreates the sound that Green--along with longtime collaborator Willie Mitchell--patented in his early '70s prime: that timeless, gospel-tinged, deep-Southern soul that Green and his powerful falsetto slips into like a comfortable bed.
Of course the refined, retrograde sound Poyser and Thompson perfectly conceive on Down takes you back to Green's Hi Records glory years. Those years he spent recording with Mitchell at Memphis' Royal Studios. The two round up a plethora of talent: Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend, the Dap-Kings horns, Philly string arranger Larry Gold and guitarist Chalmers "Spanky" Alford (who unfortunately died earlier this year). But they can't outshine Green, nor would they want to. They're on board to aid him in assembling the grown-folks music he's known and loved for.
A better term for Green would be grown-man music, songs that chronicle the uphill, dysfunctional battle men--black, white, whatever--have with staying both masculine and mature every single day.
As has been well-documented, Green's dealt with that struggle onstage and off. It's a struggle that has led to scandalous tragedies (like the notorious 1974 incident where a scorned lover threw hot grits on Green before killing herself) and controversial life changes (his notorious abandonment of secular music in 1977 to become a preacher).
But like the best artists, Green channeled this turmoil into his music. Just listen to his immortal "Jesus Is Waiting," where he breaks down his craving for salvation, dropping lines like "Reach down in your heart and say a little prayer for me" and "Save my soul, and I'll save some for you" with all the beautiful desperation of a person in serious need of love from his fellow man.
Of course love was (and still is) a constant source of material for Green. But Green sings of love as though it's as integral as breathing. To Green, it's a gift as precious as a diamond and dangerous as a gun. As Green famously declared in the opening lines of "Love and Happiness," it's something that "can make you do wrong, make you do right." He's even sung about letting love go. It's easy to fall in love, but it takes a real man to know when it's over. On "Tired of Being Alone" he moaned, "I guess you know that I love you so/ Even though you don't want me no more," while admitting, "The best thing I can do is give you your love/ Let you go away feelin' free as a dove" on "Call Me (Come Back Home)."
One of the winning strengths of Down is that it reminds us of those classics without sounding like carbon copies. (The opening title track alone is already one of the most powerful, stirring R&B compositions I've heard this year.) But even more so, Down lets it be known that every man--even an icon like Green--can strive to be better.
All you have to do is follow Green's words from "Jesus Is Waiting": "I'll do my best to do what I can/ To stand up and be a man."