The hooks are, as expected for the Temptations, solid gold at best (ie. “I Can’t Get Next To You” or the chest-passing vocals of “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down”) and merely solid at worst (ie. “Hey Jude” or “Little Green Apples”). And though conventional criticism tells you that the Temptations’ previous album that year, Cloud Nine, is better, I’m going to tell you otherwise: that album’s overly-praised psychedelic ambitions ended at the halfway mark, whereas Puzzle People refines the instrumentation and manages to keep it going for the entire album’s worth, and they also start incorporating social messages (sample track titles include “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down,” “Message From A Black Man,” “Slave”). In what way doesn’t this sound like the better album?
The best examples of the refined instrumentation can most readily be seen in the introductions to a lot of these tracks. For example, “I Can’t Get Next to You” opens with audience applause, an announcement that shit’s about to get turnt in an upwards direction (and it do indeed), a quick solo courtesy of Earl Van Dyke – all within the song’s first 20 seconds! Elsewhere, check out the syncopated intro of “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down,” the Temptations vocally imitating the machine-gun guitar riff in “You Don’t Love Me No More,” the rather excellent bassline of “Since I’ve Lost You” before the song is effectively taken over by everything else that happens. And though “Hey Jude” is obviously a throwaway, I think it was a great idea to use the melody in the climax as the introduction over some really active drums that are all over this record.
If those examples aren’t enough for you, licks, riffs, backing vocals, drums, more drums, and eventually a bassline all come in to fill in the empty spaces of “Running Away (Ain’t Gonna Help You)” (which will help you ignore the really rape-y lyrics). And closer “Slave” might be their best long song, thanks to the push-pull of wah and fuzz and gentle pings generated from Lord-knows-what-instrument during the instrumental stretch. I’m not suggesting the album is perfect: “Message From A Black Man” is a waste of 6 minutes, probably inspired by “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” from Sly & The Famliy Stone’s Stand! just months before, but it misses the point – Sly’s song wasn’t about anti-racism against black people, it was simply about anti-racism, period. Meanwhile, the length of other cover “Little Green Apples” isn’t justified; the climax that they build towards just isn’t that … climatic.
And though Puzzle People is probably not their best album (though it is at this point in time), it’s still the one I throw on most frequently because of how uplifting the music is. I mean, there’s three telling moment in “Since I’ve Lost You” that just about sums it up: a) when the vocal launch (“What can I DOOOOOOO!!!”) which beckons b) a wonderful string bridge which ends with c) a deep-voiced Melvin Franklin comes in right after (“I gotten down on my knees…”), and all of these are so over-the-top, that I can’t help but smile. Elsewhere, though each of the Temptations gain superpowers for “I Can’t Get Next To You,” they still can’t seem to impress the gal in question, so their vocals and the Funk Brothers’ instrumentation offer the solution: YOU BOOGIE YOUR ASS. YOU BOOGIE YOUR ASS AND YOU GET NEXT TO WHERE SHE IS.