Much has been written about how Marvin Gaye was one of the artists who truly changed the face of Motown and of soul music forever, so it kind of makes you wonder, what is the point in yet another compilation? Then, as this album starts, it hits you — his voice is still as smooth, silky, relevant and meaningful as ever. Gaye, by the sounds on offer here, was a fantastically engaging performer both in the studio and on the stage. This is clearly evidenced by songs such as “My Funny Valentine” and a raucous take on perennial classic ballad radio station favourite “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which sounds as though it might erupt out of the speakers at any second. Whereas now too many singers are too happy just to falsely emote away to their hearts’ content, here is a man who knows how to savour a song and make every single note count. Gaye knows when to draw a sound out so we can relish it in all its sonic glory and when to cut it short, to shock us into listening that little bit harder. For full evidence of this, just listen to “Inner City Blues”. Stripped here of all the melancholy and intimacy it has on the What’s Goin’ On album, the bass pumped up and Gaye singing as though he wants to make his lungs explode with passion, this then becomes a stark parable on the state of the American Nation.
There are almost no singular highlights on this album, every song is special in its own particular way. Even the early stuff, more the product of Motown’s songwriting factory than Gaye’s own heart (that would come later, with the What’s Goin’ On album), has been crafted and moulded with true care. You can almost taste the joy coursing through your stereo as the disc spins (or MP3 gets processed, or whatever). This is a singer who has remembered that this is supposed to be fun, that people are supposed to enjoy listening to your stuff. Whereas also, in lesser hands, the concert tracks towards the end of the set may have felt tacked on and opportunistic, here, one feels as though one is in the same room as the band playing and so one gets caught up in the true rush of the whole thing.
Because Gaye takes time to stop and give a bit of banter between songs, this feeling is truly enhanced to a superb degree and you feel as though he’s talking directly to you, the listener, which makes it all the more special. You can hear the development of a true artist also, right from the early ’60s hits, up to the concert tracks from 1981. Marvin Gaye did not start out with the same voice we all remember and treasure, it was an instrument in which he invested time and love and care. Listen, for example, to “The Masquerade Is Over”, at the start of this collection and then “Let’s Get It On” at the end. Where one has sharpness and urgency as the key qualities in the voice, the other has deepens, bass and a sorrowful, lived-in quality which could only have come from life experiences in between. He’s backed by an excellent band also, who know when to give out a horn blast or let a bass groove ride supreme (no pun intended) at exactly the right moment.
Everyone gets their own little moment in the sun, which gives the record a very tight, full and satisfying sound that resonates with you long after the disc itself has stopped spinning. Indeed, the young Pop Idol/X Factor wannabes of today could learn much from a few listens to this album. They would find a man completely at one with his own talent, regardless of whatever else was going on around about him (wives, etc), an entertainer with a perfect grasp of crowd control and audience response. The audience on the live tracks sing along heartily and greet every single song as a long-lost favourite, with applause, laughter and a few tears.
Most important of all, they would find a man with a fearsome flair for prophecy. There is as much war, uncertainty and hurt in the world now as there was when these songs were laid down and Gaye always sounds as though he is singing with one eye on the future and one on the present. These songs, then, sound every bit as relevant to the world we live in now as they were to the one in which they were composed. A welcome introduction and also a stunning reminder of one of our great lost artists.