My first memory of Marvin Gaye is of seeing him singing "Sexual Healing" on TV and giggling with my friends, not only because, as nine-year-old boys, we probably found the chorus funny, but also because to us Marvin Gaye seemed like a cheesy old guy. Now, of course, "Sexual Healing" is a classic song, and I think it plays an important part in the career of Marvin Gaye, who I now recognize as one of the greatest singers American popular music ever had. But my childhood impression of Marvin Gaye comes back to me as I listen to the new reissue of Midnight Love, his final album, recorded in 1982.
This album can not be separated from its musical context: the early '80s. The music here is super-slick and overproduced, and the remnants of disco are present throughout. These traits make me prefer pretty much any of Marvin Gaye's other albums over this one, but it'd be a mistake to dismiss Midnight Love completely, for it has its share of pleasures.
First off, Marvin Gaye is one of the most expressive singers ever, as far as conveying emotions in a clear, touching way. He also has an absolutely beautiful voice. So him singing anything is a joy. An example of the power of his singing is the Midnight Love ballad "'Til Tomorrow." He starts off with a really silly spoken bit where Gaye speaks to his lover in French. Then he sings, and immediately articulates one hundred times more feelings than the spoken word part even hinted at.
The songs here, with the exception of "Sexual Healing," aren't really as good or as important as some of the fantastic pop songs he recorded over the years. Still, there's some interesting musical turns, like the P-Funkish "Midnight Lady" and the Bob Marley-influenced "Third World Girl," lyrics that suggest a man looking for the joy and healing missing from his life (which, it goes without saying, makes his murder two years later seem even more tragic), and that unmistakable voice. A few of these songs would sound absolutely fabulous in less glitzy arrangements, like "Joy," where he beautifully lists off the joys of life over an overloaded funk track, and "My Love is Waiting," a pretty love tune with some religious overtones.
It's hard to criticize an album for the context it arose from. In the early 1980s, this sort of glossy musical backdrop was dominant in the field of pop music. Midnight Love was Marvin Gaye's attempt at a commercial comeback, and thus fits right into the commercial sound of the time. I personally think that sort of sound got in the way of some excellent songs that would have been better served by different production tactics and arrangements. Still, Midnight Love has some great moments, and has its place both in Marvin Gaye's fine catalog and in the history of R&B.