Sometimes, consistency can be a difficult thing to master. So I feel that for this 100 days of music endeavor, consistency would be nice, but the main thing would be to not stop until I finish it. Realistically, this may run into 2016, and I’m okay with that 🙂
Having been 12 days since the last album, I went through Rolling Stone’s list of top 500 albums of all time. I settled on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On because I didn’t feel like listening to a very unfamiliar album. I wanted to dive into something I knew. Also, I notice that a lot of the top albums are from White artists from America or the UK. So, I want to be conscious of making sure that I get in albums by artists of color.
First off, this is Marvin’s 11th studio album and the first album where Marvin himself produced everything. Wow. This album was a different one for Motown in general, as it carried a socially conscious message that Barry Gordy wasn’t too fond of. Gordy wanted to sell records, not change the world, so he wasn’t for it. When the title song “What’s Going On” hit number 1 on the charts, there was a myriad of other Motown artists who released socially conscious music afterwards! What’s Going On was both a commercial and critical success.
I didn’t know that this album was a concept album! The album tells the point of view of a Vietnam veteran who returns from the war to find lots of problems at home. This album was the first at Motown where the songs weave into each other. The story behind this album is great. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia page about it. It’s amazing for me to read about everything leading up to this album. Marvin took a leap that he felt he needed to do, and he was well rewarded for doing so.
On we go.
What’s Going On – Ah…feels so good when the music hits. I’m so familiar with the sound of this song. But upon further critical listening, I hear space between instruments, I hear how amazing Marvin’s vocals sound, how he doubles up his singing, the various vocals that float throughout the music, the luscious strings, the bells, the moving bassline, the depth of the mix, and the overall vibe that I wasn’t cognizant of before. His lyrical melody is amazing, of course. He carries the words with such musicality. And the instrumental arrangements are incredible. Lyrically, it rides a fine line between being preachy and painting a picture of the times. It’s no wonder that this song hit #1.
What’s Happening Brother – This song carries a similar vibe to “What’s Going On.” But it feels darker. As I sit and listen, I just think “Wow.” The point of view of this song is from a Vietnam vet who just returned from the war. The questions he is asking is so poignant that it can totally apply today. Marvin’s lyrical melodies are amazing to me. Each note glides through the music and works so well with each other. I love the different vocal parts and harmonies that come in and out. The mixing on this album is amazing. This song feels like a piece of theater.
Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) – This song is about heroin dependence. It’s amazing that he can make a topic so dark sound so beautiful. The lyrics read like a monologue. The music sets a stage. What hits me about Marvin’s performance here is his falsetto. It floats through the music. I like how the drums are used here. It keeps the beat, but it’s not driven by a kick and snare. That openness leaves the focus on the lyrics, which pain such a moving picture of the vet’s thoughts, his confessions, and his self-talk. I’m continuing to get impressed with each song so far.
Save The Children – The songs starts as if we are starting a new scene. And there is talking in the beginning. I think it’s gonna be a spoken word track, but no. There is talking and Marvin sings the exact same words. It’s a fucking movement in this song!! Jesus…I’m thinking “Where is this coming from?” I wrote that listening to the music break into jazz and then break into the song. Wow, wow, wow. No one ever equated this project on the same level as Sgt. Pepper. This is soul music’s Sgt. Pepper. Lyrically, Marvin is making a point. Why should we care to save a dying world? Because of the children. And the world is still sweet. It’s still good. We can make good things happen. The vocals on this whole song. Incredible.
God Is Love – And I love how “Save The Children” breaks into “God Is Love.” I catch the vocal stylings that is Marvin, especially how he harmonizes the “Ooohs.” He makes a point to show his love for God. It’s as if he is standing up for God on this track. I love the vocal interplay. It’s as if he is making the case with two voices. This song is short, but poignant in the sense that all we need to do is love each other, if not for any reason than because God tells us to. This song vibes.
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – And it breaks right into that recognizable intro! As I’m following the lyrics, its crazy for me to hear that THEY STILL APPLY TO THIS DAY!!!! That is a little scary to me, actually, because it tells me maybe we haven’t changed. We are fighting the same issues for decades. The words are poignant and this song grooves. I love the relaxed nature of the song and Marvin’s singing. The dual lead vocals sound so good. I never listened to the song all the way though, so the ending is new for me. It takes it to a churchy kind of place that is a bit dark. Interesting choice.
Right On – This song just grooves. It reminds me a bit of “Got To Give It Up” because it’s a 7 minute song. It makes me visualize that Marvin is up there with his band just jamming. Lyrically, I like how he is touching on all aspects of humanity in a “civilized” world – from people who have money to people living in poverty – and doesn’t judge. He reminds us that love is what is above it all. “Right On” becomes a love song then. And then we hit the second movement, which is a string, sax, and xylophonic movement about love…which breaks into a funky groove.
Wholy Holy – …which then moves so beautifully into this song. The wholy holy word play is dope because Marvin pushes up to come together “wholy,” because that what the “holy” Lord teaches us. We can be powerful if we can do this. I love the music in this song. It’s not exactly ethereal. The strings carry the whole song. The cymbals and the bass keep the time while the piano adds subtle flavor to the musicality. Everything flows.
Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) – The end song with an intro that is so sample worthy. This is Marvin’s critique on the government, and yet again, it is applicable today. The bassline drives this song. I like the sparseness of the drums. The are a lot of melodic breaks that riff for a while. And his choice of words and the melody make for instant visuals when listening. This is the closest thing to a hip hop song because of the musical repetition. I love it. Toward the end, it moves into a reprise of “What’s Going On” with vocals, piano, and rhythm. In particular, I love the choice of verse he uses to bring it back: “Mother, mother/Everybody thinks we’re wrong/Who are they to judge us/Because we wear our hair long.” As the album is a protest album, he reminds his listeners, keep going. I wonder if that is a subtle jab to the doubters of the project!!
Sad Tomorrows – This is probably an earlier version of “Flyin’ High.” It uses a lot of the same lyrics, but vocalizes differently. And there are drums. It’s still a heroin song. It’s an equally dope version of “Flyin’ High.” Seriously.
Having gone through this whole album gave me a whole new respect for Marvin Gaye as an artist and producer. It’s incredible to me that the album was all done in 10 days!! There is so much intention in this album. I can hear it. And it’s not an album intended to make you dance, which makes me even sweeter to me because it shows that something like this can have some measure of success. Marvin’s artistry in front of and behind the boards is incredible. I can totally understand why this album did and continues to do so well. The musicality of this project is something I haven’t experienced before. The depth of this whole project is amazing to listen to. The relevancy of this album is crazy scary to me as well. Wow.
As for style, I know that I like groove, I like vocal complexity, I like concepts. This album hit me on multiple levels and is one of my top for sure. I’m surprised at the fact that no one equates this album to other concept albums (well, Rolling Stone did, which is part of the reason why I listened to it). Maybe I should say I’m surprised that no one talks about that aspect of this album. I used the song “Flyin’ High” as inspiration.