[10 April 2008]
It’s amazing how much music has been made about breakups. Hell, one could even make a list of complete albums that were inspired by the end of a love affair: Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, and so on. However, there are very few breakup-inspired albums I can think of with a backstory like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. Due both to its music and its history, this album was relatively ignored upon initial release, but its legend has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, and it’s now widely recognized as the soul classic that it is. Hip-O Select’s recent reissue of the album adds a second disc of interesting remixes/revisions that doesn’t add a hell of a lot to the quality of the original album, but serves as a cool addendum to a record that any soul fan should own.
In 1976, Gaye and his then-wife Anna Gordy (the sister of Motown founder and CEO Berry) decided to split after a twelve year marriage. As part of the divorce settlement, the soul singer was ordered to give a portion of the advance money and royalties from this album to his ex-wife. Feeling a bit burned by the whole ordeal, Gaye went on to put his frustrations and anger into one of the most painfully intimate song cycles in musical history and then release it to the public. Think of it as an open letter to Anna—one that would be read (or heard, as it were) by Marvin’s entire fan base.
Anyone who has felt the effects of a divorce will be familiar with the emotions explored on this album: while it certainly has its share of bitterness and spitefulness, there are also moments of dry humor, as well as a certain warmth. Obviously, there’s still some love involved if Marvin & Anna were together for 12 years. From a musical standpoint, this album is largely midtempo funk, with elements of traditional soul, gospel, and doo-wop mixed together with a slight hint of disco (after all, this was the late ‘70s). In other words, it’s musically similar to any of Marvin’s albums during his stellar run during the ‘70s.
Nothing on Here, My Dear is particularly radio friendly (probably one of the reasons Motown had trouble promoting this record), but despite that—or maybe even because of it—it’s a totally engrossing listen. From the call-and-response (gospel-style) of the swaying “I Met a Little Girl” (on which Marvin somewhat randomly shouts out “1964!” and “1976!”—the years the couple met and split, respectively—sounding like a funky carnival barker) to the shuffling dance groove of the foreboding “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You” to the sarcastic title track, it’s all top-shelf stuff. Not to mention the fact that the band he assembled for the album is on fire throughout. Was there any soul album released in the 1970s that didn’t have superior musicianship?
Along the way, Marvin complains about everything from not being allowed to see his son (on the title track) to having to pay his ex-wife alimony (on the darkly humorous “Is That Enough”, where he whines “What was I supposed to do? / The judge says that she’s got to live the way she’s accustomed to!”) Not to say that Marvin was only taking his frustrations out on his ex. Songs like “Anger” and “Time to Get It Together” find the singer looking inward, facing the knowledge that he has to do some work on himself before he can move forward with his life. The latter song is the more intriguing of the two, with a chugging, danceable groove and lyrics that are recited almost mantra-like: “Blowin’ coke all up my nose / Gettin’ in and out my clothes / Foolin’ round with midnight hoes / But that chapter of my life’s closed” (see, folks were using the word “ho” long before hip-hop or Imus). You can hear how hard he’s struggling to get himself together, and songs like this are even more plaintive in light of Marvin’s 1984 murder.
The 2008 reissue was obviously put together with a great deal of love. Disc one is the original album, along with one bonus track. “Ain’t It Funny (How Things Turn Around)” is a bouncy tune (left off the original album, but included on one of Marvin’s posthumous works) that takes a more optimistic point of view than the rest of the album. Meanwhile, the second disc (subtitled Hear, My Dear) finds some of today’s most adventurous hip-hop and R&B producers (Easy Mo Bee, Prince Paul, jazz bassist Marcus Miller, The Roots’ ?uestlove) reworking the album’s songs—with a twist. The producers were not allowed to overdub or sample, and were only allowed to work from the album’s original source tapes. So, thankfully, you won’t find any guest emcees or space-age beats infiltrating this classic album. These remixes serve as slight reworkings or expansions on the original grooves. Some (“Is That Enough” and “Anna’s Song”) are turned into vibey, head-nodding instrumentals. Some (“Time to Get It Together” and “You Can Leave…”) are punched-up slightly in the funk department, while others (“I Met a Little Girl”, “Everybody Needs Love”) are tuned down, with minimal musical backing and Gaye’s plaintive vocals way in front of the mix. Less of a “remix” album per se, this second disc just allows the listener to hear the songs in a somewhat different context.
As albums become less and less concept-oriented over time, albums like Here, My Dear stick out even more. It was obviously made in the spirit of true artistic expression and not to reach the masses via a catchy hit single. It’s definitely not an easy listen—you will have to pay attention if you want to enjoy it—but it might just be the second-best Marvin Gaye of all time (and from What’s Going On until his death, he didn’t record a bad one). If you’re a fan of soul music, a fan of Marvin Gaye, or even if you’re going through a divorce yourself and need something to relate to, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Here, My Dear—an album whose appreciation finally seems to be catching up to it’s quality.