Concept Albums, Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On
So, here I am trying to do something impossibly difficult. I’ve spent the greater part of the last two weeks immersed in reading and listening to prepare for my fall seminar, simply titled “The Concept Album.” The somewhat obvious point of the seminar is to gather some of the best recordings ever made that were conceived as coherent pieces that were to be recorded rather than performed per se. I’ve already heard from people who wanted to know why their favorite concept albums were not on the list of ten (for a course covering the same number of weeks). What I said to each of them was that I tried to pick the most exemplary recordings, in a range of genres, that I generally thought were really great and held onto the idea of producing an album with a unified story, some degree of thematic coherence, and few, if any, ties to famous or pre-existing narratives. There’s one other important constraint: only one album per artist/group. So it is that we won’t discuss what I regard as the least interesting Beatles recording, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s the reason why so many mythologically based prog-rock recordings didn’t make the cut. And that’s also how I could leave out Wish You Were Here, The Wall and The Final Cut. So what did I include? Here’s the list:
- John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
- Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon
- Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
- Parliament, Mothership Connection (yeah, I know it’s a stretch)
- Kraftwerk, Computer World
- Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
- Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
- Radiohead, OK Computer
- The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
So, yes, back to my impossible task: describing the sublimity of the Marvin Gaye record listed above. I should start by saying that it has long been an obsession of mine. During high school, when my social life was often limited to my staying at home and listening to music on weekends, there was a period when every Saturday night, without fail, I would listen to this album in its entirety. Multiple times. On one listen, I might choose to concentrate only on the basslines. On another, the vocals. And on yet another, maybe the overall visceral impact of the recording. And the story. For those who don’t know it, imagine a black man returning to, say, Detroit after a tour of duty in Vietnam. The voices at the beginning of the album establish the context: a man coming out on the block for the first time after his return trying to catch up with people he hasn’t seen in a while. Over the course of the recording, we follow his thoughts about and disillusionment toward the world he’s returned to. Everything is there: the anti-war sentiment, the indignation at unchanged social circumstances and an ignored environment, the pain of addiction, the seeking of refuge in religion, and, despite it all, hope for the future.
Some 20 years beyond, I’m still fascinated. There’s something amazing about how tracks 2 through 6 work as an uninterrupted suite, the grooves subtly morphing to accommodate each new song. There are the happy accidents in the title track: Gaye’s double-tracked vocals and the saxophone warm-up that became one of the most recognizable figures in all of popular music (you can find the stories in the liner notes for the Deluxe Edition reissue from a few years back). And the way in which the bass line for the second track is related to that of the first, so that when it starts, it seems like a continuation. David van De Pitte’s orchestral arrangements (played by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) are elegant, and the vocal arrangements are sublime. The incorporation of Latin percussion, usually buried lightly in the mix, seems an acknowledgment of the diverse worlds Gaye and his songwriting collaborators are trying to embrace/evoke….
Oh, god, this is so hard.
Then there’s this one tune that is so notable that I have to give it its own paragraph: “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology).” In another entry, I expressed admiration for the way that Ron Sexsmith could create expansive worlds in extremely short songs. While I don’t know consciously that Sexsmith was in any way influenced by this, one could almost call this song the textbook example of how to combine power and brevity. Just listening to it a few minutes ago, I looked over at the timer on the CD player and was reminded that Gaye’s basically done singing the lyrics shortly after a minute and a half. The whole song lasts for only three minutes and fourteen seconds. One way in which he manages to achieve such economy, and this is rare in pop songs, is to dispense with having choruses. Talk about keeping things simple and focused on a clear goal. This song is so magical that I’d love to get my hands on the session tapes and do my own personal mix, preferably one that goes on forever.
The thing that gets me about this record is that the tune that I almost always want to skip, “Right On,” even seems necessary. The way I hear it now, it’s basically a few minutes for the listener to catch her/his breath, to take in what has happened to that point, and to prepare her/him for the majesty of the last two songs. The accelerando that comes about five minutes in is the point where the track takes off. It sets up an interlude that recalls “Flying High.” When the main groove returns, it finally makes sense and sounds compelling. The piano cadenza deceptively prepares the ear for the return of “What’s Going On,” but it won’t come so soon. Instead, we hear “Wholy Holy,” a song to which adjectives like graceful and stately must apply. I can’t count the times I’ve cried listening to it.
And then the closing track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” is masterpiece of understatement. The arrangement is so sparse at the beginning, and when the strings come in, they sound eerie. The seeming simplicity of the arrangement, to me at least, makes it sound like a long prelude. But maybe I think that only because I know what comes after it: the modulatory passage that brings back the words of the first tune, rendered first rhapsodically and then more directly, but in stripped-down form—with only percussion, voice and saxophone. As they fade to silence, I’m left with a choice between a long period of silence and another listen. Guess which one I’m opting for now?