At this stage in his life and his musical career, Al Green is a happy man. As both an ordained reverend and a musical legend, his legacy is secure. No longer the questioning soul of Tired of Being Alone and Belle, he seems content to ride the groove initiated on his 2003 comeback album, I Can’t Stop. His new album, Everything’s OK, is the album you’d expect a happy Al Green to make. While the world is fortunate for having a delightful new Al Green album, and we’re all glad his life is in order, Everything’s OK lacks the conflicted passion that was the hallmark of his greatest music.
As a young man, Green sang simple lines like, “It’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need”, which gained complexity from the struggle between the angels and devils in his soul. He’s more settled now, but without the edge the lyrics merely seem underwritten, even lazy. The power of his singing on the album is purely a sonic effect. The way he can start a word and then moan, groan, scream, and laugh before finishing it is a wondrous thing, but where it once signified indecision and passion, it’s now the confidence and talent of a man who knows what will sound best within the musical context of a song. But Al Green is not Al Green because he’s a craftsman. His singing on this album is like watching a caged tiger: you know there’s an innate strength being held in reserve.
Even with its flaws, there’s something that just feels good about listening to the album. Green’s long-time producer Willie Mitchell is back behind the board for the second album in a row, and the duo share arranging credits. Their experience at making soulful R&B shines throughout the album. Every song is lush and attractive. Strings glimmer over the slow songs, and congas and horns pepper the fast ones. Lest the songs sound formulaic, there are little touches here and there that speak to the care and effort put into the music, be it the harmonica breezing overtop the lazy groove of “I Can Make Music”, or the distorted guitar bubbling underneath “I Wanna Hold You”.
The groovier songs will put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip, but it’s the ballads that’ll make you hit the repeat button. This is an album of old pros doing what they do best, and the ballads give them the best setting to do it in. The slower tempos allow Green more time and space to explore the different timbres and registers of his voice—he floats over and around the music, punctuating and pushing as necessary. The strings swell and glisten, and there’s the same ringing guitar filigrees that are on every southern soul ballad—but here the familiarity is comforting, not boring. The fact that Green and Mitchell managed to record a version of “You Are So Beautiful” that will make you smile instead of groan is alone testament to their consummate skill as music-makers.
On the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits, he’s standing shirtless, a sly look on his face. On the cover of his new album, he’s wearing a sensible white sweater and an amiable smile. The difference between the two should tell you what you can expect from Everything’s OK. The title is probably a reference to Green’s life at the moment. It also fits the quality of the music. And if it’s okay for him, it should be okay for us.