Being the record geek that I am, in my bedroom, above my bed, are mounted four album covers. They represent a mix of both my favorite and most influential LPs in my young musical audiobiography and are my way of not-so-subtly saying to those who visit -- "Hey, Oliver really must like these LPs since he has them framed. In his room. Above his bed. Where one of them could fall and crush his skull in his sleep."
Just to retain some mystery, I won't reveal what all four LPs are though I will share that the album that begins the quartet is Al Green's I'm Still In Love With You, undoubtedly one of all-time favorite albums and more importantly, my so-called "desert island disc". In other words, if I were forced to spend eternity listening to one album, I would, without hesitation, select Green's 1972 classic to be my musical companion until the end of days.
I first discovered Al Green in a Berkeley flea market. Of course, I had heard "Let's Stay Together" on the radio -- loved the song -- but never managed to follow-up on that piqued interest to listen to his albums. And then one day, probably in 1994 or '95, I heard the most gorgeous soul songs coming out of a boombox at the Ashby Flea Market. A budding entrepreneur had recorded his own "best of" compilations of different soul and reggae artists and he was playing selections from Green's Let's Stay Together and I'm Still In Love With You LPs. I purchased one for $10 and promptly wore the tape to static, playing it over and over and then making dubs for friends, assuming that they probably had never heard an Al Green album simply because I hadn't (this was likely a poor assumption but I was so eager to share what I thought was an amazing discovery that I never stopped to think -- hey, this guy's probably really popular).
I also went out and purchased Green's holy triumphirate of Hi Records albums: Let's Stay Together, I'm Still In Love With You, and Call Me. I realize that the latter is the critics' favorite and Let's Stay Together is probably one of his best sellers but I instantly -- and permanently -- gravitated to the songs on I'm Still In Love With You.
On a basic level, the album simply boasts superior songwriting and arrangement/production but it probably took me years to really even appreciate it on an analytical level. Instead, what I was so taken with on that first listen -- and what takes me every time I play it -- is how it evokes moments of beauty so intense that I lose my consciousness in them. As a music critic forced to listen to music 24/7, it's hard for me to lose myself in very many albums these days, but I'm Still In Love With You never fails to envelop me into the crushed velvet sound of Willie Mitchell's production and plaintive edge of Green's wails, cries, and croons.
The lilt in Green's voice conjures many possible readings. I've always enjoyed how the angelic quality of his falsetto -- like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye -- contains a masculine confidence that's sexy without selling it. True, Green's desires are intensely secular -- on this album at least -- but the tenor is more reverent, more spiritual in its grace. What Green is able to fashion out of it is an intimacy that's hushed but not quiet, knowing but not private. Green manages to both sing to you and for you in the way that all truly great pop artists can -- giving voice to what we cannot say ourselves.
Willie Mitchell's signature Hi sound is masterful here, able to balance the sweet, stirring string orchestration alongside Al Jackson's fatback snare for a soul sound that never strays far from its Southern roots even at its most lush. Especially on this album, the arrangements are gorgeous -- blending together a range of different textures and elements but it never feels dense or overbearing in the way, say, Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia sound could get.
All these strengths can be found on other albums in other genres, but what makes I'm Still In Love With You truly great -- and the reason why it'd be my desert island disc if I was ever forced to choose one -- is that there's something here for every mood. Green's cover of "Pretty Woman" draws on the innate funk sunken into Orbison's original, turning the classic rocker into a slinky, soulful groover. If you're feeling melancholy, you can sink into the quiet, morose atmosphere of "For the Good Times". Tap into either "Love and Happiness" or "What a Wonderful Thing Love Is" for the musical equivalent of an opiate dose -- an embracing sensation of well being that can't be shaken. There's something incredibly affirming about "One of These Good Old Days" -- a hopeful quality embedded not just in Green's vocals, but also in the blend of strings and horns that fuels this mid-tempo burner. And there is nothing more sublime that I've experienced than just closing my eyes to "Simply Beautiful" -- a title perfectly embodied in the song's unhurried guitar melody and Green's relaxed vocals. Most of all, Green never leaves you alone -- that intimacy I spoke about before just eases under your skin and is a companion throughout. You can listen to the album alone but you never feel alone with it.
Oddly, I never listen to the album very much these days and to some extent, I take it for granted that Green will always be there when I need him to be. But as neglected as the album may be, it's never failed to embrace me after any absence of any length. It's simply beautiful.