Leave it to a seasoned veteran from the red dirt of Arkansas to deliver not only the Soul album of the year, but remind us that artistic excellence is still attainable in this age of mediocrity.
Forgive me in advance for the excessive use of superlatives in this review, but it’s awfully hard to conceal my admiration for Al Green’s latest project, Lay It Down. Combining the country soul of Al Green Gets Next to You and The Belle Album, the lushness of I’m Still in Love with You and Call Me, and the understated beauty of Green’s gospel classics, Higher Plane and Soul Survivor, this latest addition to the soul legend’s gem-filled catalog casts illuminating light on his enduring brilliance, as well as the enormous benefits of intergenerational exchange.
So much more than a collection of great songs, this disc marks a historic summit of first-rate musical minds, the coming together of one of this country’s greatest singers and the young lions of soul (Philly’s James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, North Carolinian Anthony Hamilton, singer/songwriter John Legend, and songstress Corrine Bailey Rae). Cross-generational recordings frequently disappoint, but Lay It Down yields beautiful results. Never does one get a sense that Green’s attempting to appease MTV and BET’s youth crowd. Nor does one feel as if you’re listening to a “has been” stuck in a time warp. Familiar yet fresh, Lay It Down presents Satin Soul at its finest.
Consistent with the sequencing of most Green recordings, the disc kicks off with the title track, “Lay It Down”. With beautiful backing from the late guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, Green sets the tone for a recording preoccupied with romantic bliss rather than heartache. One thing is perfectly clear from the beginning: time has not diminished three of Green’s greatest assets -- his intelligence, his meticulous attentiveness to detail, and his charm. Singing with great feeling and purpose on the stunning opener, the soul legend deploys all the romantic tropes, gritty extemporizations, and idiosyncratic phrasings responsible for his popularity, his singularity, and his greatness.
Avoiding the trap of staying in one gear, Green and his comrades pick up the pace with the grooving “Just for Me” and “You’ve Got the Love I Need”. Somewhat in the lyrical vein of Let’s Stay Together’s “Judy” and Al Green Explores Your Mind’s “God Bless Our Love", “You’ve Got the Love I Need” celebrates domestic tranquility and the transformative power of a woman’s love. On this cooking mid-tempo track, Green shares the spotlight with a man who definitely lives up to the descriptive ‘soul singer’: Anthony Hamilton. Elevating his woman to the role of savior, Hamilton brings not only his rugged voice, but deeply felt emotional honesty. “Oh, you’ve taught me things about me, I never thought I know,” Hamilton croons with the type of sincere conviction that melts the heart.
Strong guest performances also come from Corrine Bailey Rae and John Legend. Rae’s delicate approach serves her nicely on the lovely “Take Your Time”, while Legend’s formidable pop chops shine brightly on “Stay with Me (By the Sea)”. If you’ve listened to radio recently, you hardly need to be reminded of the satisfying qualities of “Stay with Me”. Saccharine yet substantive, the Legend/Green duet accentuates soul music's most underrated quality: its tender side.
Speaking of soul’s tender side, “Too Much” stands out as the disc’s most impressive slow grinder. This brilliant track showcases one of the greatest strengths of Al Green’s particular brand of blue light basement soul: his ability to exude sensuality without descending into the depths of raunchiness. Something is profoundly sacred about Green’s musing on romantic longing here. His testimonials move with the power of a well delivered Sunday sermon, thanks not only to his talents, but to the gifts of his backing band. Co-producer James Poyser is simply amazing on “Too Much”. At certain points in the song, his piano playing is eerily reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ beautiful work on some of Otis Redding’s most popular ballads.
Thinking about Poyser conjured up thoughts regarding this work’s relation to similar ones which feature living legends and younger collaborators. Comparisons are always tricky business, but when listening to Lay It Down, memories of Wayne Shorter’s 2003 classic, Footprints Live! constantly crossed my mind. Considered by some to be Shorter’s comeback album, Footprints featured the jazz icon and a talented group of younger musicians. It benefited immensely from Shorter’s remarkable skills, as well as his willingness to surround himself with fresh blood. The same can be said about Green’s latest project.
Considerable praise needs to be given not only to Green, but the project’s chief overseer, ?uestlove. His impeccable drumming not only fits perfectly with Green’s laidback style, but his attentiveness to sound, along with his industry connections, ensured that the soul legend would be backed by capable musicians like Brooklyn’s Dap King Horns, James Poyser, and bassist Adam Blackstone.
Maybe his best move was bringing in one of gospel and soul music’s finest guitarists, “Spanky” Alford, whose passing in March adds significance to an already historic event. What can be lost in praise of rhythm and blues' greatest voices was the importance of guitarists like Cornell Dupree (Donny Hathaway and Aretha), the vastly underrated Eric Gale, Bobby Womack (see: There’s a Riot Goin' On, particularly “Just Like a Baby"), Jimmy Nolen, and so many others. Always an important aspect of Green’s sonic landscape, the guitar became even more prominent in the singer’s music during and after his 1977 classic Belle (check out “Georgia Boy”, “Hallelujah”, “Jesus Will Fix It”, and “The Lord Will Make a Way”). What Al Green had in “Spanky”, a guitarist who worked with artists as diverse as the legendary Mighty Clouds of Joy, Raphael Saadiq, and D’Angelo, was a seasoned musician who understood Green’s soul and gospel sensibilities. One gets the sense that “Spanky” and Green’s collaborators respected the singer and “the tradition”, but they also trusted their own skills and voices. This combination of reverence and confidence resulted in one amazing product.
So, at the end of the day, what do we make of Green’s latest offering? Where does Lay It Down rank in his illustrious catalog?
Well, it’s highly unlikely that diehard fans (those folk who ride extremely hard for at least eight Green albums, and by ride I mean can’t live without em’) will alter their top five Al Green albums list. But it’s also unlikely that future Al Green Greatest Hits compilations -- and the capitalist gods will surely inundate us with more -- will exclude songs from Lay It Down. In the final analysis, this 2008 recording will definitely be enjoyed and pondered by generations to come.
Surely, some may express surprise at the high quality of Green’s latest project, but truth be told, I never expected anything less from one of my most cherished Soul Survivors.