Maxwell: BLACKsummers’ night

When Maxwell stepped inside Bowery Digital to begin laying down tracks for BLACKsummers’night, I wonder if he intuited that he was about to reach a new pinnacle of excellence in his career.

I also wonder how long ago he actually began recording this album. For the past three years, at least, listeners have eagerly awaited the release of a new Maxwell record. Every six months or so, word would finally surface that his follow up to Now (2001) was imminent and then … nothing. Through a maze of postponed street dates, Maxwell’s fourth studio effort, in three times as many years, has finally arrived like a coveted answer to a riddle.

Only Maxwell can explain the gap between Now and, well, now. In his time, he surely will, but what is certain is that the world has changed since 2001, when Maxwell’s gaze last graced an album cover. His return is instructive at this particular moment; one where idols are created instantly, and music “legends” seem to be made after one or two albums — well before passing any true tests of endurance, relevancy or staying power. Legends aren’t made the first time out (or by adopting the word as one’s last name) but gradually over time. Maxwell has taken eight years to make a musical statement, and thankfully, it does not latch onto any trends, nor is it weighed down by self-importance or bloated egotism. Thankfully, he also steers clear of attempting to recapture the spark of his highly lauded debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996). Instead, Maxwell has grown and evolved, slowly shedding the skins of his musical selves, becoming a legend not in his own mind but in his own time.

The appeal of BLACKsummers’night is that Maxwell does not pander to anyone’s preconceptions about his music. While he is still the same man who crooned “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” back in ’96 (his glorious falsetto is still well endowed, by the way), he is now playing in a different garden of music delights of which he’s the groomed and suited gatekeeper. BLACKsummers’night is distinct from anything that came before. It stands on its own and is compulsively listenable.

On his fourth round in the studio, Maxwell corralled an excellent team of musicians, brilliantly fusing together the horn section with the rhythm section. Chris “Daddy” Dave’s work on the skins sizzles everywhere while Shedrick Mitchell’s organ surfaces with a few different identities throughout the album. Hearing the combination of trumpet, trombone and saxophone on nearly every track also reminds just how little contemporary artists use any kind of brass anymore. With producer Hod David, Maxwell naturally integrates the horn section into the tracks, lending a live feel to the production and making it easy to imagine these songs will feel right at home in front of an audience.

The first glimpse that the listener is in for something really special is at 1:54 on the opening track, “Bad Habits”. In just a few seconds between the end of the second chorus and the beginning of the third verse, the song takes a turn on the momentum of a brief bass guitar chord progression by Derrick Hodge. Maxwell ups his game vocally on the subsequent line, testifying, “Baby, to tell the truth / When I’m sober, I jones for you”. He prepares us for the gritty urgency he conveys on “You got me locked out baby” in the bridge, a quality first heard from Maxwell during the fade out of Sweetback’s “Softly Softly” back in 1996.

That’s not to say Maxwell or his band is understated. “Cold” extinguishes that thought away in its first two seconds, when Dave hits the drum and Hod David lays down a mini blues motif on the guitar. The song is a spotlight for Dave’s thundering dexterity. When not keeping time with a heavy beat, he’s cooking up some mean fills. If ever there was a word meant for the dulcet tone of Maxwell’s voice, it’s this song’s title. He wrings a few different meetings from the one syllable. Saying “Cold” is hot is too elementary a description, and yet the song sets you up to feel that exact duality. If by the time Keyon Harrold and his trumpet don’t stir some heat, get your pulse checked immediately.

It’s almost a novel idea to issue a single anymore but that’s what “Pretty Wings” essentially is. While a little too modest a choice for a first single, it nonetheless glistens in the context of the album. After the heat generated by “Cold”, “Pretty Wings” steeps like a tea bag in a glass of fresh iced tea on a hot afternoon.

A chill of a different sort surrounds “Help Somebody”. The way Maxwell ponders his mortality on the line, “If you see the future / Ask it if I’m there”, induces a shudder. Yet what he seems to be expressing is how he — or any of us, for that matter — can leave a meaningful imprint that transcends mortality. If we are crippled by fear, if we shut out the world around us or if we choose to dismiss or hide from people, then we render ourselves invisible. If, however, we lend a hand to someone in need or make a dream come true, then the spirit of what we leave behind echoes beyond our lifetime and lives on in other people.

Maxwell slides into a romantic vein on “Stop the World” and “Love You”. He interchanges rasp and falsetto on the former with impressive ease, punctuating his desire: “We about to stop the world tonight”, over a tight but smooth groove. He vamps the line as a duet with himself, once again emphasizing how the best background singer for Maxwell is Maxwell.

Three piano chords introduce “Love You”, the most exhilarating song on BLACKsummers’night. The spiritual high of love is conveyed through a perfect marriage of the melody and lyrics. Maxwell phrases the words in a stream of consciousness, as if there is no full-stop to the deluge of feelings from loving someone so hard and deep. Reading the lyrics to “Love You” does not do justice to the intensity of emotion behind the printed letters. His voice captures the breathless desire to give oneself so completely to another person. The effect is like parachuting through the sky and never landing.

“Fistful of Tears” and “Playing Possum” (not the Carly Simon song, for those who just might have wondered) are the flipside of “Stop the World” and “Love You” and center on mending hearts. Maxwell’s lyrics occasionally veer towards the cryptic, and we are left to make our own meaning, but somehow the sentiment registers in the vessels of emotion his voice carries. His quiet, somewhat fatigued pleas on “Playing Possum”, for example, signal his regret for past mistakes. The subtext seems to be that he’s expended so much energy apologizing that all he can muster the strength to say, finally, is, “Wake up” and hope that stirs some sign of forgiveness in his scorned lover. Appropriately, Keyon Harrold’s mournful trumpet solo gently closes the song.

The instrumental “Phoenix Rise” concludes the first part of BLACKsummers’night. Featuring layers of synthesizers over an uptempo lounge/chill arrangment, it’s a palette cleanser that’s markedly different from anything else on the album, and it could very well be a preview of what’s to come on the second installment of the trilogy. Maxwell might be delivering one course at a time, but for now, delivering one of the best albums of 2009 will sate your appetite just fine.

RATING 9 / 10