Recently, an acquaintance and fellow music nerd sent me a message asking why I didn’t include any albums by Marvin Gaye on my 500 greatest records list http://rgdinmalaysia.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-top-500-records-of-all-time-100.html or the addendum http://rgdinmalaysia.blogspot.com/2011/08/my-top-500-records-of-all-time-addendum.html
Truth is this was an oversight which I have gone back and fixed. In retrospect, Marvin Gaye is now considered a bit overrated by a consensus of music critics although I think they are focusing on the wrong parts of his career when they make this assessment just as they did when they proclaimed him the greatest.
I do feel his most famous record WHAT’S GOING ON? ,while a great achievement in its time a very well made record from the heart, doesn’t today pack the full meaning of what it must have meant at the time it came out (although sadly America seems to be slipping back into the same type of problems). What I most note about it now are the tremendous arrangements, huge, string sections of epic proportions and instruments piled on top of each other. It's an understatement to say it's a good bunch of songs too.
Gaye is also slightly overrated as a vocalist. He doesn’t have a commanding voice like Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett for example. The kind of voice that grabs your face with both hands and bellows .
Instead, his voice is relaxed, natural, Gaye was not the best soul singer of all time as was originally claimed but he was perhaps the most subtle. His vocals gets under your skin like a little voice in your ear, like the angel and the devil on both shoulders whispering at the same time.
Gaye’s true excellence were his effortless vocals as well as his brilliant use of overdubs to create a vocal group effect utilizing call and respond very well and his conceptualization of albums as complete groups of thematically sequenced songs that ran into each other....Something not done in “black” music at the time.
In particular was his thematically linked 1970’s trilogy of albums about male-female relationships LET’S GET IT ON, I WANT YOU, and HERE MY DEAR. His signature achievement IMO especially HERE MY DEAR
LET’S GET IT ON is an album of songs about sex not necessarily of the casual type but more like the lust you feel for someone you’ve met for the first time and want to know better. Here lust is not just a means to an end as the level of want Gaye describes is not temporary under all the horniness, he’s talking of building something long lasting. The music here is not much different than WHAT’S GOING ON? Loads of strings and a wall of sound.
Even better is I WANT YOU here the couple is beyond the lust stage and are now trying to forge a real relationship. Sex does figure here but the overriding vibe is of the love felt at the beginning of a relationship – the intensity, the happiness, the passion and there’s some sadness there too although it’s not so clearly defined and I felt more it through Gaye’s delivery than anything in the lyrics. The music is also different. A funky bass is now out front. There are still plenty of strings but more deliberate grooves. Synthesizers burble just below the surface.
Best of all though is the third album HERE MY DEAR a double album chronicling falling out of love with someone, the break up. This is the most autobiographical album of his career relating raw details of Gaye’s own divorce from his first wife. This is also his greatest album a muddy masterpiece to be sure that needs to listened to all together in sequence-Some of the songs don't mean as much to separately. In that regard it’s like EXILE ON MAIN STREET but EXILE has no overriding theme. Weird sounding synthesisers fight for instrumental dominance on many of the tracks. It also reminds me of a cleaner sounding THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON.
On LETS GET IT ON and I WANT YOU Gaye’s vocals were passionate but HERE MY DEAR he sounds relaxed but it’s the type of “I don’t give a f*ck” relaxation, a shrug rather than Perry Como. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1yvS_m_7eE
This is an amazing trilogy of records LET’S GET IN ON (lust, first meeting), I WANT YOU (building a relationship, enjoying the relationship) and HERE MY DEAR (The end of the relationship, the break up)....HERE MY DEAR alone is one of the greatest records of all time and the second best album ever about divorce (after SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS by Richard and Linda Thompson).