Gregory Isaacs -- Sufferer's Time
This is an important trio of re-mastered and enlarged re-issues, chronicling a period when Jamaica’s most individual vocal genius was close to being a crossover star. International fame had begun in the late ‘70s with his signing to Virgin records and pretty well ended with Out Deh, recorded for Island in 1983. The singer had already made what many consider his most important recordings before this high-profile phase and he did not exactly disappear when the post-Marley pop/rock interest in reggae waned. Adapting to the new dancehall rhythms, he ensured that a “roots” audience always remained loyal. An ability to remain himself while musical styles mutated all around him has meant that he is still a force to be reckoned with in reggae circles today. Thirty years on, the Cool Ruler, despite a difficult private life, survives. So, too, do the songs.
These early ‘80s sets mark a transitional moment in Jamaican music and would be of interest whoever the vocalist. Roots Radics provide most of the backing and their crucial role as bridge point between the Revolutionaries and total Digitalism soon becomes apparent. Historically, this was an era of social as well as musical and technological changes. Listen carefully and the switch from Manley to Seaga, from Reform to Reaganomics and from Ganja to Crack Cocaine can be detected. What remains relatively constant is Isaac’s odd, slightly nasal, but uniquely haunting delivery and his rocksteady-era unhurriedness.
Isaacs is one of those singers who cannot be mistaken for anyone else. Like Van Morrison or Bobby Womack, it takes just a syllable or two before you know it’s him. Even more than those giants, his mannerisms and persona are all his own and among the true wonders of modern music. Mournful to the point of defeat, laconic and devoid of bombast, Isaacs is the vocal incarnation of the Sufferer, stoical but somehow always in pain—a burden caused equally by the anguishes of love and the privations of poverty. Genuine ghetto poets are, whatever hip-hop scribes would have you believe, a rarity, those that also manage to embody the condition and consciousness of that harsh environment should be revered. Gregory Isaacs is a Caribbean artist of the first rank, once heard never forgotten.
He was born, into extreme poverty, in 1951 and has remained true, at some personal cost, to his origins. A subsidiary career, which began with selling weed for Bunny Wailer’s father, eventually led to imprisonment on gun and drug charges. Addiction has also left its mark. Nevertheless, that remarkable voice has never been silenced—to the extent that there are now over 150 Isaacs’ CD’s currently available.
Although there are no really bad Gregory Isaac records, such is the subtlety of his delivery, it has to be conceded that these three outings are not unqualified classics. If, like me, you never quite recovered from reggae’s abandonment of instruments for synthesizers, the albums do mark a sort of decline. The third set was much criticised at the time for that reason and although it has its moments is the only one where interest might be justifiably more historical than aesthetic. Steve Katz’ excellent sleeve notes to each disc almost convinced me otherwise but I still think that we move chronologically through essential, to highly desirable, to the merely optional as far as purchasing is concerned.
Because of that, I’ll take things in reverse order.Out Deh! (the title partly referred to Isaac’s then recent imprisonment in the notoriously tough General Penitentiary) was recorded with the Radics before being over-dubbed with synths in London by Philip Ramarcon before a final wash and brush-up from Groucho (Paul Smykle). As you might guess, it sounds very “eighties” and what once seemed new and futuristic now sounds a little cheap and nasty. It is by no means the worst offender from that era and does have plenty of bounce but it can’t be said to be the most sympathetic setting for the usual mix of lover’s pleadings and social realism that had by now become the Isaacs’ trademark.
The songs that refer to prison have particular weight of course with “Out Deh” itself the pick of the bunch. The love songs though sweet and sexy as ever lack that ache and poignancy of earlier years though and are merely efficient. There are some obvious attempts at re-cycling (“Private Secretary” for “Night Nurse”) and a perfunctory tiredness to some of the arrangements, new technologies notwithstanding. Still, the singer’s timing and phrasing are as supreme as ever and just as a sample of how reggae sounded in ‘83-‘84 it has appeal.
The prison sentence probably stopped Gregory from fully benefiting from the commercial success of his previous effort. “Night Nurse” is the best known song and the album from which it came found its way into a lot of homes. It is efficient, concise, and will bring back a lot of happy memories to those that heard it first twenty years ago. The songs have a confidence and assuredness that testify to Isaacs’ commercial and critical high standing at the time. “Night Nurse” still works well but perhaps the more heart-wrenching “Stranger in Town” and “Objection Overruled” will now be fully appreciated as classics of equal standing.
The metaphor of the “Stranger” and the constant references to “Loneliness” always feature highly in Isaacs’ work. A sense of apartness and alienation give all of his love songs a seldom-matched depth and emotional intensity. Even at his most seductive, there is a pleading and a quiet desperation that speaks of a pain and an absolute Lack that is unlikely ever to be adequately satisfied. When the singer begs forgiveness for his failings ( “Objection Overruled”, “Hot Stepper” etc.), the hurt is almost overwhelming.
The bonus tracks include some tasty dubs and a particularly impressive extended version of “Cool Down the Pace”. Here Isaacs reports on a young woman who is dancing too fast. It has much humour, but the tale of the mismatch of tempos becomes an analysis of the gap that exists between male and female desires and is as inspired as it is profound. It is also a perfect slow-stepper and makes you long for the sound systems of days gone by. This is one for four in the morning, throbbing bass-bins and that sublime mixture of the tender and the tough that reggae used to supply so well.
Similar themes and an even more melodic sensibility make More Gregory the finest selection of the trio. This is simply one of the all-time great reggae albums. The Taxi Gang share backing duties with the Radics and are, to my ears, streets ahead stylistically. Ansell Collins’ keyboard work alone would make this disc worth owning, but all the songs (some of them re-workings of early ‘70s Isaacs hits) are examples of the best the singer has to offer as a lyricist. His voice is in full-on anguish mode and from “Confirm Reservation” (another troubled tale of leaving) to “Once Ago” (another tale of loss and pleading), every track is pure gold.
“Front Door”, “My Only Lover”, “Poor Millionaire”, “Permanent Lover”, and “The Fugitive” have all that can be asked for in a song—rocksteady/rockers rhythms, a swaying, relaxed pace and Isaacs’ singing full of sensuous nuance. Alienated, pleading, alone—the persona is at its fullest. Love can conquer pain (the pain of poverty—see “Poor Millionaire”) but Love is fraught and fragile. Men fail and lose what they most desire (“My Only Lover”) and life is dangerous. The figure of “The Fugitive” is a fitting one for Isaacs—trouble is closing in, it is time to move on. Moving on destroys the possibility of love and stability. The flawed man is always one step away from happiness. Only in the act of seduction (“Hush Darling”) is there any moment of forgetting that threatened self.
It is a male loneliness (and the attitudes to women are stereotyped, if more true than most men will readily admit) but it is articulated as no one else has quite managed. The bonus “Wailing Rudie” sums it all up. A belated rude boy anthem ,this is no mere outlaw celebration—the key thing about this rudie is that he “feels like he has no friends” and his “badness” is inextricably linked to that sense of isolation.
The Isaacs performance posits a figure always ill at ease with his environment but always searching (through sex and love) to find his place. The ghetto and poverty will always win but the singer keeps searching—moving towards and away. “You may think I don’t care because I’ve been a rover everywhere”, “Rudie gaan go wail”, “The Philistines are at my heel, I’ve got to make my run” are typical lines. It is the voice that brings the added weight to this singular take on the modern outsider.
Beautiful music, peerless vocals and an ocean of human ache and sentiment, More Gregory has lost none of its power. An early Isaacs’ hit was “Lonely Lover”. No singer ever summed his characteristic tropes and traits so succinctly. With this CD, you can hear the fullest exploration of that precarious self-titling. It is a joy, bittersweet and bewitching in equal measure. There is nothing quite like it, even in the rich annals of reggae’s golden age.