[Originally posted December 2012]
Released in 1975, this is the album that consolidated my appreciation of the brilliance of Al Green. I will have been aware of his genius during the early 70s with his string of hits, but this record collected the majority of those songs by which his distinctive silky soul funk has been defined.
As well as loving my poles of pretty folk/Americana and heavy rock, I have always also loved soul music [which is hardly an astonishing range]. I’ve written elsewhere that the first albums I bought were in fact Wilson Pickett, The Four Tops and an Atlantic soul selection, albums I threw/gave away after buying and feeling I had to adhere wholly, and ridiculously, to Hendrix and similar psychedelic, underground music – and those soul albums have subsequently been replaced. But I bought and kept the Green after that late 60s, teenage nonsense.
Whilst I haven’t seen Al Green live, nor a great range of soul artists, I feel privileged that I did get to see The Stylistics, The Detroit Spinners, Sister Sledge and Jimmy Ruffin, as well as Hot Chocolate [different soul skew, I know] a little later, and then the great The Isley Brothers, but much later in their career.
This preamble is probably somewhat of a filler as it is hard to describe at any illuminating length Al Green’s soul sound: it is so distinct and famous that the attempt does seem more superfluous than usual when writing about a genuinely great talent [Rolling Stone place him at 66 in their list 100 Greatest Artists Of All Time, but I’m sure I’d have him higher]. The relevance of the history of my love of soul is in how Green epitomised its spirit in those measured but funky grooves, the lyrics about enduring love, and the stunning expressive sweetness of his vocal.
It is that voice of course – quite restrained in terms of volume, but gliding around and around at his falsetto with such soulful feeling – yet those arrangements too: the funky female chorus interjections, stabs of horns, the rolling organ grooves. Movement encapsulated in music. Obviously it’s sexual.
The opening track Tired of Being Alone introduced those distinctive horn hits. Green groans and squeals as if he is right there in that moment, stuttering as he conveys his urge and need and the seduction of it all. Third I’m Still in Love With You lets the horns introduce again, then he almost whispers the premise of his singing – female vocal support echoing bits of the message – and there he goes again, emoting with such genuine yearning and persuasion, all wrapped up in the love.
Then there’s fifth How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. So slow, so pained, so glorious. The organ pumps brooding empathy in the background, strings layering their own pain, then menace [even a quick mimetic ‘breeze’]. And throughout, Green’s voice is all questioning and despair for mending, the repetition rising in an agonising rhetorical climb. Sixth Let’s Stay Together – here we go: horn jabs, organ wisps and rolls, a funkier rhythm, chorus supporting with together, good or bad, happy or sad, such reasoning in his declaration of that enduring love already mentioned as a key theme.
I’ve purposefully focused on those slow, sensitive numbers. There are upbeat tracks, like the wonderful Here I Am [Come and Take Me] where the horns are more active and strutting throughout, the rhythm chugging within the familiar organ’s increased huff and puff, so an honourable mention here as well to Green’s musical collaborator/engineer/arranger Willie Mitchell.
All of this nostalgic revisiting of Green’s music during the soul 70s, and listening as I write this, reminds me of how much I lived it then. As a longhair who headbanged to so much heavy rock of the time I also had my soul/disco alter-ego where I’d don a three-piece suit or velvet jacket and go to the local nightclub to dance so-smooth all night to those cool grooves. I’m sure it was smooth – even if in this picture I look rather foppish. I’m certain it is just an aberrant stance. And I don’t think those background flowers help…..