30 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #29

Marvin Gaye, Here, My Dear (Tamla/Motown, 1978)

Here, My Dear is a confusing, self-indulgent, bitter, conflicted, deluded, and above all honest masterpiece with almost no immediately catchy melodies on it. Using "honest" to describe this album might seem incongruous at first: at a deep level, this album's relationship with reality is somewhat tenuous. Marvin Gaye made this album in one of the strangest divorce deals in history. Money from two albums was the only way Gaye could fund his divorce from Anna Gordy, who was the sister of Berry Gordy - the head of Marvin's record label - and a woman he'd cheated on for years. (Gaye's spending habits made MC Hammer look parsimonious, and he was desperately short on cash.) Gaye's relationship with his wife was very weird - they apparently remained close after the divorce, which had been extremely acrimonious - and the divorce proceedings, on the days when he bothered to show up, generally left him so mad that he had to go to the studio and start recording. Gaye seemed to have been completely shocked when Anna Gordy served him with divorce papers, even though he'd already moved in with an 18-year-old. He'd originally decided to meet his obligations with two albums filled with utter crap, but he soon became obsessed with the project and labored over it for months and months, and then put out this crazed double album (two albums, natch) after Berry Gordy threatened to kick him off of Motown and destroy his career for good and for all if he didn't release it quickly. Unsurprisingly, it promptly stiffed. The album is a very skewed - but totally honest - account of a failed marriage. It is also the ultimate male self-pity album. It is also as close to a confessional singer-songwriter album as any soul singer ever put out. (This might be Marvin Gaye's version of Blue.) It was clearly conceived as a complete album, yet there are parts where you could definitely accuse Gaye of padding and filler ("Everybody Needs Love" has the same melody as the title track; "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" pops up as an "instrumental" version, which basically consists of Gaye singing to himself over the song's backing track, and as a reprise, in addition to the regular version). And it's riveting, often furious - yet it's completely laid-back and sounds completely stoned half the time. Here, My Dear is an almost insoluble problem of an album.

This is an album that is deeply successful on its own terms, which not many people seem to be willing to understand. It's not really about the songs, per se, although there are more than a few songs that clearly meant a lot to him and that he clearly spent some time working on. It's about the sound of the album as a whole - the grooves, the lyrics and the singing. The sound of this album is definitely not quite soul, definitely not disco, and definitely not funk in the way that Sly/Clinton/Brother James defined it - though a majority of the songs are carried by extraordinarily funky polyrhythms. (There we go with that whole paradox thing again. It's just going to continue throughout this review, so get used to it.) It's extremely subtle. It lulls you into hearing all the details of the sound. Musically, it's kind of like a really depressed '70's Stevie Wonder album without any trace of pop songwriting on it, come to think of it. It's suffused throughout with Gaye's soft, caressing, seductive synthesizer work - there are electronic keyboards all over this album. Guitars are consistently kept in the background and used as either wah'ed or chicken-scratched rhythm instruments. Bass provides syncopated and continually unexpected melodic glue/backbone to the songs, and I shudder to think how sketchy this whole album would have been if Bugsy Wilcox's drumming hadn't been so tightly complex, funky and consistently wonderful, although word is that Gaye himself did some drumming on the album as well. (Marvin was an accomplished drummer.) The mood is downbeat and angry, but it's never rousing. The point is to sort of luxuriate in the sound as Marvin sings to you in your ear about what's going on with his life and his relationship.

The lyrics don't present a consistent picture at all. Some songs were clearly meant to hurt Anna and smear their relationship. "Here, My Dear" features the famous lyric "You don't have the right to use a son of mine/To keep me in line." "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" is six full minutes of relationship bile from hell, and "You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You" seems determined to make these two people despise each other for the rest of their lives. But a few other songs seem just as determined to preserve good memories of their relationship. Most of "I Met a Little Girl" chronicles his relationship with Anna Gordy in the most idyllic of terms. It ends with Marvin singing "Hallelujah... Alleluia, I'm free." Oops. "Anna's Song" talks about the beauty of their relationship in very positive terms and hooks it to the lines "This is Anna's song... I'm making love all night long." Gaye sings "I'll always remember you and all the fun we had" on the "instrumental" version of "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You." Some songs concern Gaye's tormented need to feel loved: there is no moment on the album that sounds more genuinely agonized than when Gaye sings "Doesn't matter, what you are, a thief, or a beggar, or a superstar." Still others have him turning the pen on himself: "Time To Get It Together" ends in a subtle but extremely funky coda with Marvin's lead vocals singing, "I've been racing against time, trying my best to find my way, change my world in just one day. Blowin' coke all up my nose, gettin' in and out my clothes, foolin' 'round with midnight ho's, but that chapter of life's closed." Sounds optimistic, right? Wrong. The backing vocals are singing at the same time: "Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock - my life's a clock and it's winding down. From the day you're born till the day you're in the ground." He's acknowledging his own, prodigiously self-destructive tendencies. (In case you hadn't noticed, we'll just say Marvin Gaye was a very, very, very damaged, traumatized individual.) And one song has seemingly almost nothing to do with the concept: "Sparrow," which is six minutes of Gaye talking to a bird and pleading for it to sing. Maybe he's grasping at any source of beauty in his life. Or maybe... he's just talking to a bird. Where does all of this lead? "Falling In Love Again" is an open commitment to Gaye's lover, Janis Hunter - but their relationship and later marriage had begun failing during the making of Here, My Dear, and they would soon get another acrimonious divorce. Paradox upon paradox.

The singing is the most intricate and possibly the best it would ever be on a Marvin Gaye record. But Gaye never sings with the power that characterized his early '70's material, much less the '60's material. The singing here is less about sheer power than about melody, timing, subtlety, and pure beauty. Marvin's singing is nothing less than gorgeous throughout, and he overdubs several tracks of his own voice on many of the songs. So many songs here have Marvin's lead vocal playing off the sound of his own massed backing vocals - and each backing vocal interacts with the music in a completely different, individual way. In its' way, this album is almost a masterclass in singing: how many albums have you heard where the singer records something like seven vocal tracks on a song, interacts with the music differently with every tracked vocal, and have it come out not just coherent, but like it was meant to be that way? Let me know of any others that are out there, because I can't think of any.

Maybe the way to best explain this album is with a line from "Is That Enough," my favorite song on the album; at one point during the seven-minute song, which slowly builds into one motherfucker of a groove, Gaye actually sings the line: "Somebody tell me please, tell me please: Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" This line is brilliant - it sums up everything the album is about in one neat contradiction - but it could fall totally flat in the wrong hands. Gaye makes it confused, clever, enraged and resigned all at once. Here, My Dear is a brilliant, confounding puzzle.

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