Maxwell: Now

Mark Anthony Neal



Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2001-08-21

He is without question the crown-prince of the Neo-Soul movement. Blessed with bohemian good-looks, with the requisite wild hair and an enigmatic and self deprecating personality, Maxwell was not quite prepared to be the poster-boy for the next generation. At the time of its release Urban Hang Suite was little more than a sweet slice of retro-soul, the kind of thing that was always gonna be in the changer, but was never gonna be in regular rotation on anybody Hot-100 station. R&B's little secret -- secretly cultivated by a small cadre of listeners (many of which who initially peeped the joint at places like Circuit City on sale for $7.99), who wanted to protect Urban Hang Suite and the man behind its genius from over-exposure (we can use Alicia Keys as a reference) and the filthy hands of over-promotion and commercial expectations.

Then came "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" and regular views on MTV and suddenly the "secret" had become the "savior" of soul music and with it came comparisons -- expectations really -- to Marvin, Curtis and a host of other "dead" legends who would themselves have collapsed at the weight of expectation and triple-platinum projections. Embrya never had a chance. "Saviors" are not supposed to be obtuse, ambiguous, inaccessible and unnecessarily artistic. They are supposed to sing (sell?) catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms and shoot artsy videos, but not exhibit artistic growth -- "how dare he leave us?" Maxwell's latest release is aptly titled Now as it finds Maxwell neither looking back or forward for that matter, but rather statement about accepting his audiences' most basic assumptions about his art. This is not to say that Now is in any way a disappoint -- on the contrary it should stand up as one of the most accomplished R&B recordings of this year, but one that is not emblematic of the artistic growth that Embrya suggested.

At the time of Embrya's release Reuters critic Frank Paul, Jr. suggested that Maxwell had taken a page from '70s rock and perfected the "album oriented R&B" soul. Months before the release of Maxwell's latest Now, critics were asking whether he had re-bounded from his "sophomore slump" (read increased record sales) and even his label got cold feet delaying the project's release date after audiences were lukewarm to the Embrya-esque "Get to Know Ya". Then came the second single, the breathlessly simplistic "Lifetime" -- Maxwell's aching, yearning cinnimonny tenor caressing lyrics of love and life resolved -- easily his most powerful single since "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)".

Ironically the roots "Lifetime" do, in fact, lie in Maxwell's past, but not in Embrya or Urban Hang Suite, but rather "Fortunate", the R. Kelly written and produced track that Maxwell contributed to the soundtrack of the 1999 film Life. However complicated Robert Kelly may be, the key to his musical success has been to couch life's complexities in the most accessible language possible -- "You remind me of my jeep", "half on a baby" and in the case of Maxwell, "fortunate to have you girl, I'm so glad I'm in your world . . ."

The lyrics to "Fortunate" were a far cry from tracks like Embrya's "Drowndeep: Hula" ("I'll wear your liquid kiss and watch as if inside/Dispel the negative as if myth alive"), though the latter is one of the most exquisite R&B ballads of the last decade. The synthesized "ear whispers" of "Lifetime" is firmly within the conventions of "Fortunate," though like much of Now it represents a tenuous balance between the esoteric and the accessible. So while "Lifetime's" chorus features the easy hook "I can't let my life pass me by / Or I can get down and try this lifetime" the song's bridge features a brilliant gem of a lyric like "ooh I can make you understand that love is not a fairly tale in a melody".

Ultimately though what carries Now is the fact that Maxwell is a brilliant vocalist, whose interpretive skills easily outpace those of contemporaries like Will Downing and Bilal, are on par with Luther Vandross (minus Loofah's sheer power of course) and Jill Scott, and likely to one day put him in a class with Nancy Wilson and Marvin Gaye. In layman's terms, "bruh can flat out 'sang'". Such skills are apparent on tracks like the sinewy "Silently" or his rendition of Kate Bush's "A Woman's Work". In the latter example, Maxwell's excruciatingly beautiful falsetto recalls the classic '80s "jerri-curl" R&B of Ready for the World, Dreamboy ("Don't Go") and The Deele ("Two Occasions" and "Shoot Em Up Movies"). Maxwell's version of "A Woman's Work" is a welcome addition to Now, with a more polished feel to the track than his equally stunning version from his Unplugged performance.

Maxwell plays it straight on the very fine "Was My Girl" which is fashioned with the kind of mid-tempo deep blue funk that marked tracks like Urban Hang Suite's "Sumthin', Sumthin'" and Embrya's "Matrimony: Maybe You." He is even more pedestrian on the bass-laden "Changed" which will likely be a future single. Both tracks are the kind of "ride-friendly" head-nodders that'll keep Maxwell in regular rotation in CD changers. Such is also the case with the lead single "Get to Know Ya" and "Temporary Night" which are more in line with the sensuous funk of Embrya.

Maxwell is a little more adventurous with "NoOne" which suggests that Maxwell was one of many folks secretly dug Christopher Cross. In the project's most surprising track, Maxwell gives a nod to the fine pop sensibilities of classic "country-soul" stylists like Hank Williams, Sr. and Patsy Cline ("Crazy" is one of the greatest pop performances of the 20th century) on "For Lovers Only". The track is reminiscent of Sade's moving interpretation of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love". Though the song is a Maxwell original, it may leave fans aching for the possibility that Maxwell will one day record a collection of standards along the lines of George Michael Songs from the Last Century or Marvin Gaye's posthumous release Vulnerable, which contains some of his finest vocal performances.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.