Nothing cheeses a critic off quite as much as having to bow to the conventional wisdom, but in this case everything you’re hearing about this record is probably true. Yes, Al Green has reunited after 27 years with Willie Mitchell, the producer with whom he created his greatest works, and yes, it does sound pretty much exactly like all their earlier stuff. And, sadly, yes, there’s something missing here; all the signs of “Classic Al Green” are here, but the feeling it all inspires in the listener is different somehow.
This review will mostly be an explication of why this is. But let’s try to discuss it as a piece of music first, so we don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a great work of soul music. This is clear and apparent from the very beginning, and it relies on two facts: A) Al Green is still the finest soul music singer in the world, and B) Willie Mitchell is still the finest soul music producer in the world.
A) Al Green is still the finest soul music singer in the world.
Well, it’s true. He proves here, again and again, that he hasn’t lost any of the many weapons in his vocal arsenal: regular smooth voice, growly passionate voice, higher floaty keening, knock-’em-dead falsetto, they’re all here, and usually on every song. The title track is the opening track, and it’s also the best showcase for this phenomena — he starts out in mid-glide, only allowing his true feelings to surface occasionally: “There must be a reason why / I feel so free / You know I can’t stop / No no no no I / Me loving you / You loving me”. He waits, with holy droit de seigneur, for the right time to really stretch it out (an adorable and unexpected flute solo helps extend the tension), and then, blam! at 2:51 he hits us with the high hard stuff and it’s all over. While the song’s title is about how the protagonist can’t stop loving the subject, it’s a dodge; the album’s title is about how Green can’t stop singing, how he loves secular music too much to stay away, that his elegant serpentine thrill of a voice just would not be hidden away.
And that’s perhaps the best revelation to come from I Can’t Stop: Al Green still sounds like Al Green. There’s a little thickness in his voice that wasn’t there before, but it’s comforting, like love handles on a grandfather or something, and it actually works to his advantage on songs like “Not Tonight”, where he’s begging his woman, “Don’t get on that train / Don’t get on that plane”, which I’m not sure he could have pulled off in 1972. But other than that, he sounds the same, nailing each song to the wall with sheer love power, whether it’s a soft slinky ballad like “Rainin’ in My Heart” or a Stax/funk routine like “I’ve Been Thinkin’ About You”. We should be thankful, because just to hear Al Green soar is a beautiful thing, no matter what he’s singing, and by returning to secular music he’s giving all of us a beautiful Christmas gift.
B) Willie Mitchell is still the finest soul music producer in the world.
This is true too, and this is an even bigger surprise; Mitchell is 75 years old, and hasn’t been a major force in music for a long time. But he does the right thing here, not trying to sound too “hip” or “with it”, no duets with P!nk or Missy Elliott, no phoned-in guest rap appearances from Jay-Z or Killer Mike or Bahamadia — all he’s trying to do is to re-create the magic that was a daily thing for him back in the 1970s. So he makes the ace call and that’s why they’re all back in Royal Studios in Memphis, using as many of the same musicians as they can: Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar and Leroy Hodges on bass, Rhodes/Chalmers/Rhodes on backing vocals, the Royal Horns (including the very, very important Andrew Love on tenor sax).
These songs pull off the Pierre Menard move: they sound just exactly like they would have thirty years ago. “Play to Win” is a tough-minded strut that would have been perfect on Green Is Love, all horns and cooing backing vocals and minimalist guitar scratch on the verses, only to explode during the chorus: “No money / No diamonds / But we got love!” The shadow of “Let’s Stay Together” is invoked on “Million to One” and “You”, which would be a problem if “Let’s Stay Together” wasn’t one of the ten greatest singles of all time; the rollicking 6/8 of “I’d Still Choose You” might have brightened up Still in Love With You‘s second side somewhat; the excellent horn arrangement of “I’ve Been Thinkin’ About You” rips off “Spinning Wheel” to great effect.
Which is not to say that Mitchell and Green don’t have some tricks up their sleeves. There’s no way Mitchell would have let Green go on for six and a half minutes on “My Problem Is You” back in the day, because economy was their hallmark; he also wouldn’t have made the backdrop into a big-band orchestral-jazz-blues-soul arrangement. But this tension works perfectly here, really letting Green wail it all out, get it all out of his system once and for all, all the rage and frustration and sadness of being in love with someone when you’re not supposed to be in love with her or him. It also allows for a solo or two (Robert Clayborne’s organ jamming is pinpoint) and some lush string charting by Mr. Mitchell.
So what’s the problem? Well, I’m not really sure that it’s fair to say it, but I will, and let the cards fall where they may: This record is too happy. I know it’s crummy to fault Al Green for finding the comfort and peace for which he was always searching; he found it by using his gifts to worship Jesus, and from escaping the danger (hot grits) and anguish (divided soul) of the pop music industry. But I’m afraid that, for me and for a lot of listeners, that tension between God and Man was the heart of all of Al Green’s greatest work. Even when he was doing a love song, there was always something tortured and off-kilter in his voice and in the words he wrote and sang — “I’m a Ram” and “Never Found Me a Girl” are profoundly weird songs about the war between faith and lust, between this world and the next, and even “Let’s Stay Together” itself was much sadder and stranger than it would have been in anyone else’s hands.
And there’s just very little of that here on I Can’t Stop, because Al Green is happy now. There are flashes of it, like in “Rainin’ in My Heart” where Green pulls off lines like “I don’t know when life begins / I don’t know when life might end / I keep looking at the sun / But it’s rainin’ in my heart” and goes on to say that “my love is an eternal one” — oh, that delicious conflict! And “My Problem Is You”, like we said before. But most of these songs are about being glad about love, having “Too Many” loves, living in happiness. And that’s great for Al Green, because this record will sell a lot of copies and get him back on the national agenda, and it’s great for Willie Mitchell, because I hope he makes a lot of records in the time he has left (the rumor is that he’s quite sick). But it’s just not the highly confused Al Green that made four or five of the best records ever made in all of American popular music. And I’m not enough of a jerk to wish more confusion and trouble down on someone’s head just to get a “better” record out of him.
Really, I’m not.