Sunday, December 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Here, My Dear" by Marvin Gaye

Here My Dear is on of those albums that inspires more discussion about the circumstances of its making than the content itself. That makes sense, seeing as its circumstances are fascinating and its content is often not, but that hardly bodes well for the album as a listening experience.

Famously, Marvin Gaye was getting a divorce from his wife, Anna (complicatedly, sister of Gaye's Motown-impresario boss Berry Gordy). The terms of the settlement included a proviso that, as alimony, Gaye turn over the proceeds from his next album to Anna. While I've spent years wondering what kind of boneheaded wannabe-Solomon would come up with such a ruling, it turns out that the idea came from Gaye and Gordy themselves, and the judge merely confirmed it after both sides privately agreed to it. The story goes that Gaye set out to make a terrible album in spite but eventually his artistry caught up with him and he came up with a genuine statement instead of just merely product.

That might be true, and if so, being a double, perhaps the album gives us both stages in equal parts. Critics have warmed to this album down the years after giving it initially a cool reception, but if ever there was a double album crying out to be a single, this is it. Large stretches of this album follow a similar pattern: a smooth and very attractive R&B backdrop is established, over which Gaye waxes philosophical for minutes at a time, singing stream-of-consciousness musings over amorphous melodies that never gel into anything hummable. The musings, beautifully sung with great overdubs, often have the cadence of a great Baptist preacher in full flight and are in turn petty, profound, boring, angry, knocked-off, thought-through, bittersweet, bitter and sweet. Yet they very rarely connect with the listener, being ultimately self-involved mumbling as opposed to enjoyable music. Choruses are few and far between on this album as tunes arrive, repeat unchanged for an average of about six minutes, and then go away. Any variation whatsoever to this template inevitably sticks out and seizes the imagination of the listener. And by and large it is those deviations that remain on my eight-track single disc. Perhaps that means I've removed the heart of this musical-exorcism. But perhaps it's that so-called 'heart' that makes this album difficult to enjoy, and with it gone, suddenly it's a much better, leaner project.

One last 'pity' here: the only real time you ever hear mention of Here, My Dear is on lists of albums about divorce, some similar discussion. Considering that it touches probably more people than it doesn't (children of broken homes included), divorce is a huge topic that is barely mentioned in popular music (outside of country & western, of course). A double-album concept album about divorce is actually a great idea, but this is not that album: it's a concept album about Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy's divorce, and that's not the same thing at all. This album is too specific, too self-involved, to have any of the universality that great art needs. Someone going through a divorce and looking for art to reflect, give shape to or reassure the emotions he or she feels will find little or use here. This is 'reality TV' on vinyl, the Gaye family disintegrating for our entertainment value. In consideration of what this album might have been, that's a profound disappointment.

Here, My Dear

Side one
  1. I Met a Little Girl (5:03)
  2. Anna's Song (5:56)
  3. You Can Leave, but It's Going to Cost You (5:32)
  4. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (6:17)
Side two
  1. Sparrow (6:12)
  2. A Funky Space Reincarnation (8:18)
  3. Falling in Love Again (4:39)
  4. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (Reprise) (0:47)

The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Here, My Dear, Single-Disc Version «

Here, My Dear: lose

Less a song than a Greek-chorus-style introduction to the album that follows, this is great if you enjoy living theatre, honest as it gets and very much about the real-life circumstances surrounding this album. But shorn of context, it's just three minutes of aimless noodling, ultimately ugly in its self-pitying cry of victimisation.

I Met a Little Girl: keep (side one, track one)

A masterful take on classic doo-wop R&B, smooth as silk. There isn't a note in this whole song that you can't hear coming a mile away, but that nostalgic comfort in classic form is exactly the point. A regret-filled look backward at the early days of his and Anna's relationship (with the early-sixties chord progression thus setting the era), it's gorgeous and entirely successful album material. It couldn't have been a single (I mean a seven-inch), but what here could have?

The title track being a mere intro, Motown actually put this as the album's first song. I have to concur: the retro feel and languid tempo are red herrings, but it's an arresting opening.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?: keep (side one, track four)

This wasn't the single, but it's very obviously the album's main attraction, not just obvious because the song appears three times over these four sides. If someone wanted you to introduce them to this album, this is where you'd start. It really is an amazing groove, one that just leaps off the turntable. It's bright, imaginative, crisp and well-recorded. It holds the attention - which is great, because for six minutes you keep expecting a chorus to break out somewhere along the line. It constantly seems to be building toward one. And yet one never comes, well not until the very end of the song. It's frustrating, but that's what this album is like. Gaye is in fine voice, filled with emotion and mostly quite compelling. All in all, this approaches 'classic Gaye', yet it's not quite there, even if he liked the song enough to include it three times, lasting over 13 minutes. I like it too, bit maybe not quite that much.

I'll be honest here: I thought of bookending the album with versions of this lapel-grabber. But then I put "I Met a Little Girl" first. Then I thought "Anna's Song" should follow it. Then I thought track three buried this song, so I decided instead to conclude side one, as opposed to opening it. A quick spin on the iPod confirmed it still flowed this way, so there it is. It still complements its reprise, with the same song closing both sides.

Anger: lose

Why do songs fade in? Usually because they're salvaged from jam sessions. Tough to tell in this case what this song's genesis might have been. It's a bit tougher (funkier) than normal musically, and a bit tougher (strident) lyrically. No chorus, obviously. Not better or worse than the vast majority of this album. It's actually tough to find anything at all to say about this song.

Is That Enough?: lose

A confident midtempo R&B groove, enjoyable enough even though too little goes on musically to maintain interest. Risking sub judice, the lyrics are a rant by Gaye about the goings-on of the court case, about how he doesn't like the idea of alimony. Even more self-pitying, then, than the rest of the record, it's ultimately unlikeable, and a superfluous solo at the end does little more than increase the running time towards eight minutes.

Everybody Needs Love: lose

A good example of the main problem with this album. The groove is decent enough: smooth and sweet. But it's not a song. It's merely Marvin spending minutes enumerating who and what needs love. Then it fades away. Satisfying? Not even remotely, however pleasant the musical backdrop might be,

Time to Get it Together: lose

A bit of a flashback to the sound of Gaye's 60s glory-days productions, and pretty much exactly the length a song should be, this song still fails. It's an attractive groove, but one in service of very little: Gaye spends the first half merely saying 'time' over and over again, and the second half randomly 'testifying' about his failings in life. it brings the sadly weak side two to a close, seventeen and a half minutes of chorus-free ranting.

Sparrow: keep (side two, track one)

A smooth jazz number, lyrically only tangentially related to the album's otherwise unrelenting theme. It serves as a great breather, a welcome change of tone, both musically and lyrically. It was probably stuck on as filler, perhaps taken down from the outtakes shelf or intended for a different project, but its delicate jazz beauty makes it an album highlight. Marvin Gaye apparently always wanted to be a jazz singer, his early attempts at Motown to record in that genre constantly thwarted by their commercial failure. While his R&B work is obviously what he'll eternally be remembered for, this foray makes one wish he'd attempted a parallel career too.

My side one has a definite purpose, whereas my side two meanders a bit. So why not start with that most meandering of genres? This is side two, track one as an intentional 'reboot', or an intermission if you will.

Anna's Song: keep (side one, track two)

The album attempts to show the Gayes' marriage and its disintegration stage by stage, and the saddest part of the album is not actually the break-up, its the obvious love in Gaye's voice when documenting the happier days. This beautiful and uncomfortably personal song is practically the very definition of the word 'bittersweet'. Moving, gorgeous and sexy as hell - it must have made millions of women question Anna Gordy's sanity.

The double flits about throughout the marriage: one song addresses the dissolution, the next one the initial courtship. I felt weird about opening this album with two slow tunes, but putting 'Anna's Song' later on in the album both breaks narrative flow and also kind of buries this song a bit. It deserves better, so track two it is for me.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You? (Instrumental): lose

Starting out this time with that elusive chorus, this six-more-minutes has way more of Gaye's voice than the parentheses in the title would suggest. More than strictly an 'instrumental version', this is closer to a 'part two', the extended vamps that James Brown liked to include on the b-sides of his singles. But the 'part one' is already six minutes, and while this is an enjoyable enough groove, you'd have a hard time making a case for this as anything but cynical filler. And let's be honest here: court settlement or no, if you have to resort to instrumental versions of songs to bring your double-disc to full running time, release a single-length disc.

A Funky Space Reincarnation: keep (side two, track two)

Martin really did have funk chops, content though he might have been to stick to R&B. This is eight minutes of spectacularly silly sci-fi nonsense, like George Clinton's P-Funk as viewed through the filter of Berry Gordy's Motown. Truth be told, this is much the same as the rest of the album: meandering groove, stream-of-consciousness words, no chorus whatsoever. But it fits the genre better, and the increase in tempo is appreciated on what is after all a rather sleepy album.

My side one gave me a lot of consternation, but my side two fell together much more quickly, primarily being 'just follow the original's side four'. They start the side with this epic. I get the logic of that, but 'Sparrow' doesn't make much sense except as a side starter, so in deference to that, this follows it as track two on the flipside.

You Can Leave, But It's Going to Cost You: keep (side one, track three)

An album is 'top-heavy' if it frontloads all the most accessible material at its beginning. Here, My Dear, then, is 'bottom-heavy', really picking up the pace on the almost-faultless side four, by which time many casual listeners must surely have given up. This is the muddy of the divorce case, back to lyrics that are maddeningly particular and embarrassingly specific. But the music is much more engaging this time - rare on this album, you can walk away singing (or at least humming) this one. It passes that infamous 'whistle test', which doesn't by itself make it a good song any more than naked emotional honesty does. What does make it a good song is perhaps more intangible, but like its neighbours on side four, a good song it is.

I don't get why this is on side four. It makes more sense as a musical decision than a thematic one, but I like it better on side one. It's track three because on my album it moves the story from 'the good old days' to 'the divorce'. It introduces the downfall of the marriage (which I'm just realising now I really don't dwell on much), and also hikes the tempo up after two midtempo tracks.

Falling in Love Again: keep (side two, track three)

The soap-opera on this is that this particular track is about Janis Hunter, the woman Gaye had already married by the time of the release of this album had been released. As it happens, they already had two kids together before Anna even filed for divorce - lest you think Marvin is the victim here. In any case, whatever the unpleasant real-world associations (should I mention she was 17 and seventeen years his junior when they began their relationship?), this song is still brilliant as a finale to this album (which it is, barring forty-seven seconds), ending it on a cautious note of optimism. Not only is the lyrical content lighter but so is the music and Gaye's delivery. This just floats in the air in front of you, after a full hour-plus of weight pushing you down. Refreshing.

Motown gets this one right: it has to be the climax of this album if the album is to have any thematic unity, and if this song is to be anything more than a sore thumb on the album. There's a tiny coda to come, but otherwise this should really be the final track here: side two, track three.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You? (Reprise): keep (side two, track four)

Thematic unity? Or fourteen songs on a double looking better than thirteen? Well, either way it works. A tiny little bite of the album's main 'theme', just as the credits roll. Cute.

Obviously this can't be anything but the last track now, can it?


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