I have a little theory to float about Marvin Gaye.
If What’s Going On and Trouble Man had turned Marvin into one of the most vocal social critics among mainstream black popular musicians (Marvin’s dissent, after all, paled next to that of Gil Scott Heron or Charles Mingus), Let’s Get it On saw him turn his energies once more to the carnal. His biographer David Ritz has suggested that Gaye’s most sexual works are also his most spiritual. Five minutes in the company of Here My Dear, Vulnerable or What’s Going On should be enough to dispel that as a ridiculous myth.
As for so many others in the seventies music industry, Gaye’s interest in sex was intimately bound up with his interest in cocaine. The very sound of the Marvin Gaye albums that are seemingly most concerned with sex – Let’s Get it On and the later Midnight Love (parent album to Sexual Healing) – give away the true inspiration behind them: not eros, and certainly not agape, but coke. Trebly, bright, cold and essentially hollow, they are competent, intermittently inspired, but not much more. Efficient and easy to admire, but hard to love.
There’s a difference in the voice and in the sound. When Marvin cared, it showed in the attention he lavished on his vocal arrangements and on the warmth of the instrumentation. Let’s Get it On (the single) in comparison to, say, What’s Going On (the single) sounds tinny, the bassist and drummer are seldom together, and the wah-wah guitar part is sketchy. After the famous opening lick, the guitarist quickly runs out of ideas; by the end of the song his playing is pure wibble. Compare this to the care taken over What’s Going On, which saw him scrap the original, perfectly good, Detroit mixes and start again in LA, honing the sound until he arrived at a finished product which is unquestionably one of the greatest-sounding records ever made. As the producer of his own work, Gaye could have worked harder and called for better takes from his players. Instead he kept the performances given to him, oversaw mixes that skimped on the bottom end (maybe to hide the looseness of the playing), and went on his way, presumably to get it on again.
I Want You is a curious album that occupies a middle ground between the two extremes, containing both the best and the worst of Marvin Gaye as an artist. The title track trumps Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing by managing to be all at once a wracked love song, full of romantic and sexual desire, and a genuinely spiritual piece, with Marvin pleading for the soul and the body of his love, not just the latter. The vocal tracks are so dense with harmony and counterpoint that they almost bury the lead vocal, which paradoxically works in the song’s favour: Gaye’s pleading surges and recedes in intensity and audibility as he puts to use all of his registers: a close and intimate near-whisper, an airy falsetto and a strident, throaty wail. Gaye’s ability to multi-track his own voice, in different registers, is unparalleled in pop music (Prince did similar things, but he didn’t need to invent any of it). I Want You would be captivating if reduced to only the vocal tracks; a documentary I saw on Gaye did just that to soundtrack one section – it was absolutely thrilling. With the jagged lead guitar and the drum track, playing the snare on every other offbeat (creating a weird, stop-start effect that seems to switch the song into half-time every half a bar), added to Marvin’s voice, the song becomes undeniable.
The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the title track; although it has its moments, it’s second-division Marvin, with too few ideas stretched over too many minutes. Ian MacDonald’s off-handedly damning reassessment-cum-obituary characterised him as ‘a charming muddle who hadn’t much to say’ and bemoaned the ‘supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work’. This was on the harsh side, but I share his reservations about this aspect of Gaye’s work. Further, his closing comment about Marvin’s inner world, ‘wherein ecstasy, melancholy and ennui were entwined in troubled complicity’, seems to me an accurate encapsulation of his music, and indeed this gets to heart of why he’s so fascinating, even when he was wasn’t, um, really trying.
Marvin Gaye, troubled man