So…I’m not going to make any friends with this review, am I?
Look, I can dig it.
I can dig it because I appreciate what this album signifies to Marvin Gaye himself: fueled bymental depression brought on by the recent death of Tammi Terrell, the collapsing marriage with Anne Gordy and trouble with the IRS, not to mention the inescapable physical depression brought on by the aftereffects of cocaine use.
I can dig it because I appreciate what this album signifies to musical history: before this, Motown was a decidedly formulaic label; they
probably definitely would have shut down the Temptations from attempting psychedelic soul if Sly & the Family Stone’s use of the sound didn’t show so much profit in the first place. Sick of being domineered into making hits for the Motown machine (“I felt like a puppet”), Marvin Gaye sat on his hands until the record company met him on his terms, and he released an album that sounded nothing like what he (/Motown) made before.
I can dig it because I appreciate what this album signifies to the people through its lyrical themes: it’s not like police brutality (“What’s Going On”), war (“What’s Happening Brother”), environmental issues (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”), depression (“Save the Children”), poverty (“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”) – just fucking general unrest – have gone away between 1971 and now. Hell, I’m pretty sure those issues have only gotten larger.
I dig those things. I dig them very well, I do. BUT, I also dig the fact that those qualities, however perennial, are also peripheral to the music, which is what should be examined when we talk about an album. And frankly, the music doesn’t do much for me at all. I mean, for an album that is supposed to take the soul genre by the hair, kicking and screaming as it were, into the album format, this sure is universally recognized for only its singles and there’s a lot of filler in between. Had this been released in the late 80s, “What’s Happening Brother” would’ve wound up as one of 10 remixes on the single release of “What’s Going On,” since that’s essentially what it is. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” is a song in search of a melody. “Save the Children” is a lot of cheese in search of bread – the backing vocals that repeat every line were frankly a terrible idea. “Right On” is so happy for putting a groove over the whimsical percussion from the Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” that it gives you 7 minutes worth. Furthermore, for an album that touches on various genres of – ahem – “black” music (soul, jazz, funk) as well as managing to incorporate various genres of – ahem – “white” music (rock, classical), this album sure sounds monotonous, with very little variations in tempo or style. You can’t say the same for the albums label-mate Stevie Wonder would giving us a year from now – are those albums (relatively) less acclaimed simply because they weren’t released first?
Now, I can forgive filler, I really can, but unfortunately, the singles – “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” – don’t impress me much either. For all the talk of the album’s lyrics, there’s really not much to them. He simply presents the problems of our world and then repeats literal nothings desperate to be mantras, “What’s going on?” “What’s happening, brother?” “Mercy, mercy me.” It’s hard to take environmental issues seriously when they’re being presented as “Upon our seas, fish full of mercury” that makes me wonder why the Beach Boys were criticized so much for a nursery rhymes talking of the same thing that same year and Marvin Gaye is exempt from such criticisms. Not only that, with the exception of the harmonies and scatting in the title track Marvin Gaye has decided to reserve his voice as much as possible, “I’d been studying the microphone for a dozen years, and I suddenly saw what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been singing too loud,” such that there’s no fightin an album supposed full of fight songs. It gets to the point that when the saxophone replaces him halfway through “Mercy Mercy Me,” I wonder why he sang anything at all in the first place (…though on a positive note, that second half has great saxophone and great backing vocals). Meanwhile, the only truly sad part of the album where I can actually read his depression is the coda of “Inner City Blues:” faraway cries of “mother” while Marvin Gaye yells the same word in the foreground. Notice when the groove returns, it feels entirely different than when the song first began.
If you want the things that this album is celebrated for, there are so many other avenues to look for released in the same year alone. You want the instrumentation – the grooves, the strings, the brief forays into rock music? The Funk Brothers give it to you in Sky’s the Limit, and the Temptations give you better vocals to boot! You want to hear those exact same things as the stopgap between Jimi Hendrix and Prince? Shuggie Otis gives it to you in Freedom Flight. You want to hear soul? You want grooves up the wazoo? You want an album without filler? You want something just as (if not more) influential? You want cocaine – both the good and the bad – in music form? You want to hear the artist’s personal exorcism? You want to fight? You want to know what’s going on? Sly & the Family Stone tell you: There’s a Riot.