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Al Green refers to himself in the third person. Calmly, reflectively, like, “I think Al Green is still growing.” Passionately, like “Al Green can sing to that!”
It's a common affliction of fame: the ego swells beyond the man. But Green, 62, has another explanation. On NPR's “All Things Considered,” he told the host Michelle Norris, “It's not me that's speaking. It's another individual singing through me.”
It's tempting to interpret that as Green claiming to be possessed — by a cherubic-voiced alien, by the Holy Spirit, by take your guess — but I think, more likely, he's talking about empathy. Al Green's songs move us, make us dance, make us make babies because Al Green understands us deeply and wholly.
The crooner's career trajectory certainly lends itself to broad understanding. It's been well parsed: Born a sharecropper's son in Forrest City, but raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Green got to Memphis in the early '70s and over five years released seven albums that redefined the face of soul music. Amid that hit parade, in 1974, a former girlfriend entered his house, threw a boiling pot of grits on his chest and killed herself. Green took that as a sign from God and bought a church in Memphis near Graceland, where he's served as pastor for more than 30 years. In 1979, he fell off an Ohio stage, interpreted that as another sign from God and devoted his career exclusively to gospel music. God continued to talk, but in less dramatic ways. In the last decade, Green has returned to secular music.
For recent albums, Green reunited with Willie Mitchell, the Hi Records producer, who's usually credited with creating the Al Green sound of the '70s that so brilliantly infused plush, urbane Philly-style soul with Delta grit. The latter records were strong, but not a return to form. How does anyone replicate 30 years ago?
By studying ceaselessly and reverently, it seems. On “Lay It Down” (Blue Note), the new record from the right Reverend Green, producers Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and James Poyser don't just evoke the Al Green sound, they revive it. Thompson, who plays drums in the Roots, has talked about studying the engineering and nuances of session playing on every '70s Green record. In interviews, he and Poyser both have emphasized the importance of keeping the sound organic, recording without synthesizers, live in the studio.
A byproduct of that spontaneity: Al Green is yelping again. And cooing, humming, moaning and otherwise vocally inflecting in a range that must be unique to himself. He's also singing about romantic love in a way that only occasionally dips into the saccharine (there is brief mention of stardust). More often, he hits on an elemental romantic trope — “you're the only one for me,” “take your time,” “stay with me” — and repeats, massaging the message with his voice, evoking new feeling each subtle croon through.
“Lay It Down,” the album's opening track, works this magic most winningly. Over Poyser's gurgling organ, a gliding string section, Green implores his lover to leave her problems at the door. “Put your keys down. Lay it down. Let it go. Fall in love.” It's hard to listen and not swoon a little.