Is it wrong that all I want to do is compare this to There’s a Riot Goin’ On? Gaye beat Stone to the punch and the title of Stone’s album was apparently changed to answer Gaye’s question. So it doesn’t feel that far off. Still, I’ll try to avoid it as much as I can.
I am not a Marvin Gaye fan. He doesn’t make the kind of soul music I like, whether he’s singing about love and sex or whether he’s singing about social issues. He’s from the Motown school and, even though he now has greater creative control than he used to, he’s still very much making misc in the mold of Motown. I’d say this album’s closer to Curtis Mayfield, given the social comment themes, but it still feels produced.
Mayfield is a good comparison for the songwriting, too: songs bemoaning the state of affairs but with catchy melodies and a lot of emphasis on a pleasant vibe, despite the lyrics. Mayfield is a better lyricist than Gaye – he’s a better lyricist than most soul singers – but the “catchy melody with social comment” vibe of Curtis Mayfield is otherwise unmistakable.
The arrangements are lacking Mayfield’s trademark guitar but, otherwise, do not feel far from that way of making soul music in the early ’70s. Gaye’s arrangements are perhaps a little less dense, and there’s the occasional rough edge – such as the sax solo on “Mercy Mercy Me” – but, again, the vibe is very similar. I like this more than a Curtis Mayfield album, I should point out. Gaye’s music here is more interesting, for the most part. But it does feel like it was arranged in the shadow of Curtis Mayfield as much as it may have been written in it.
And it’s so far away from the unsettling, difficult record that Sly Stone made as a response to the same issues. That record manages to capture so much on it, that you can feel his pain and confusion and the chaos that was engulfing him, the black community and the United States. That’s just not present on this record, outside of the odd lyric from Gaye. And those words are always sung smoothly and presented as part of an alluring musical package.
Like with every other soul record that tries to balance social comment with smooth soul, I’m kind of at a loss as to why people thought it was a good idea. This one has stood the test of time better than Curtis Mayfield’s efforts because it had a bigger hit…maybe? I don’t really know. People remember Marvin Gaye more now, it seems. This record is a major part of that.
Whatever I think of it, it is a big deal. I’d strongly recommend listening to There’s a Riot Goin’ On instead or, as the opposite of a palette cleanser. But there’s no denying the influence of this album – on ’70s soul and on neo soul, among other things. I just think it’s the wrong approach to the subject matter.