Marvin Gaye Addressed His Times and Anticipated Ours on Previously Unreleased Album ‘You’re the Man’
In 1972, sixties spirit and subversion had uprooted any lingering remnants of fifties comfort in conformity. The feeling was ubiquitous, and had already started to seep into art, although still rarely in voluminous doses. Marvin Gaye had a decade’s worth of hits to his name, and could have easily stuck to form, rehashing the tried and tested. But the conceit of Motown seemed a bit of a farce with the realities of the day, and Gaye’s creative restlessness had paid off handsomely on his groundbreaking concept album “What’s Going On.” No longer satisfied with the twee and tame tracks of yore, Gaye followed up with another socially conscious album, “You’re the Man.” Deemed too bold and lacking commercial appeal by Gaye’s label, the album was shelved, and is now first seeing the light of day as a posthumous release. The original material, as well as a couple other tracks from that period, and a few remixes by illustrious producer Salaam Remi, has come out three days before the thirty-fifth anniversary of Gaye’s death, and four days before what would have been his eightieth birthday.
From the opening notes of “You’re the Man, Part I & II,’ this is a distinctly ‘70s record. You can hear the Motown instincts of Gaye’s earlier work naturally loosened at the edges, and allowed assume the form of free-wheeling soul-funk. Over a tectonic groove loose with spiky wah-wah guitars, Gaye dwells on the socially conscious subject matter that he bravely brought to light earlier on “What’s Going On.” Written for the 1972 presidential race between incumbent Richard Nixon and Democratic senator George McGovern, the song expresses Gaye’s widespread disillusionment with the state of politics. At the time, he was being hounded for back taxes, which makes its way into the song, along with issues like inflation, gun control, and of course, peace. At the time, the country was stirred up by an incompletely realized Civil Rights Movement, and still embroiled in the Vietnam War. Remarkably, the song is quite relevant in the current, divisive sociopolitical climate, with lines like, “I believe America’s at stake.” It’s particularly notable that the lyrics, while quite obviously derisive in tone, are open ended enough to hypothetically justify an interpretation of full sincerity. It’s a surprise the song’s chorus of “If you have a master plan / I got to, got to vote for you” hasn’t been featured more often in both positive and negative campaign ads.
The sentiment bleeds into the following song, an alternate version of “The World Is Rated X.” There couldn’t be a clearer lyrical companion to “What’s Going On,” although it seems Gaye missed the mark a bit with the titular line, as one would hardly expect an X rating to bother the artist who brought us “Let’s Get It On.” Perhaps NC17 would have been a better choice. Then again, Gaye’s lyrics are generally, considerably more about implied feelings than pointed details, so it’s hardly an issue. Like the first track, this song reflects the cusp of a new era, in this case with leftover “Age of Aquarius” vibes in the twinkling keys and fanciful arrangement. Come “Piece of Clay,” the sound has zeroed in on the moment of conception, past the summer of ‘69, as heralded by the unfettered, opening electric guitar solo, and by horns towards the end that are starting to sound like the SNL house band. The song is a perfect illustration of Gaye’s knack for stringing together seemingly self-evident, yet largely unspoken, truths with an empathy hat speaks directly to you. The line “Father, stop criticizing your son” is chilling in retrospect, considering that Gaye’s father ended up murdering his son. On a somewhat brighter note, Gaye seems to put his finger on something priceless with the chorus lines, “Don’t you see that’s what wrong / With the world with world today? / Oh everybody wants somebody / To be their own piece of clay.”
While it’s natural to side instinctively with a legendary artist, and vilify a record label at odds with him, one can get a sense of the label’s qualms as the album runs on. “Where Are We Going? (Alternate Mix 2)” is essentially the fourth song in a row about the same thing, and at this point, Gaye is doing little more than shrugging and flailing his arms. On the other hand, one has to appreciate the immaculate mellowness of the number — a natural extension of Gaye’s natural emergent mood, full of unimitable suaveness. Whatever the subject matter, Gaye’s delivery was always blithe and gracefully gliding, a quality even more pronounced on “I’m Gonna Give You Respect,” in which he seems to flow right off the edges of music, like the very antithesis of stiff sight-readers. “Try It, You’ll Like It” might be the most realized articulation yet of the funky protest music template that Gaye has been teasing. With his impassioned growls, in tandem with background singers’ ad libs, Gaye channels the essence of Gospel, and creates a communal experience.
Gaye takes a detour from the political diatribe, and delves into the territory of steamy soul that is an equal part of his legacy on “You Are That Special One,” a playfully spirited number full of feisty falsetto. Next, “We Can Make It Baby” sounds a bit like Gaye’s 1967 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” reimagined half a decade later, and should make for an enthusiastically received anchoring of the same feelings. Things have smoothly taken a romantic turn, which becomes suddenly stark upon the subsequent song “My Last Chance (Salaam Remi LP Remix,)” equal parts easy and breezy and hot and bothered — a dim-lit, sepia soundscape of jubilant passion, with Gaye at his most mellifluous. Remi offers mixes of two other cuts, “Symphony” and “I’d Give My Life For You.” The latter is a highlight, with gorgeous, lush instrumentation, and Gaye venturing into different ends of range, with his usual warm tones, full of awe and personality.
These songs were written at a time when feminism was taking off in unprecedented proportions, and there could hardly be a more fitting celebration of the moment than “Woman of the World.” Gaye sings, “You see a brand new generation / You’re where you want to be” with cheery complacence, prompting the jingle-ready refrain, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Then comes a delightful diversion in the instrumental interlude “Christmas in the City,” full of colorful, kaleidoscopic guitar indulgence. Tying things together, follows a reprise of the titular track, a more subdued take with Gaye receding to tenor duties for a free, reflective musing over a cool assemblage of funk signifiers. In a rather odd sequencing selection, we’re then brought back to the holidays, with an alternate mix of “I Want to Come Home For Christmas,” a sprawling ballad that joins the two main threads running through the record. Gaye belts the titular line, going on to note, “But I can’t promise my eyes this sight / Unless they stop the fight,” framing the festivities in the context of the larger bleak landscape, but ultimately winning the tug-of-war with abundant imagery of Christmas and family life. “I’m Going Home” is a natural extension and reaffirmation of the idea, with a insistent backbone that flaunts resolution. Finally, “Checking Out (Double Clutch) fades out in a cut of good-humoured, pure funk.
While every track on “You’re the Man” is immediate and evocative, it’s safe to say the songs are not the most finely crafted in terms of pop appeal. Each number seems more concerned with the spontaneous, unhindered expression of a feeling. Marvin Gaye was such a master of his craft that this is hardly cause for complaint. Nevertheless, the album was written in a time of accelerating change, and was understandably seen as going a bit too far. Today, the work comes across as a rather balanced blend of righteous, revolutionary spark and the lighthearted levity of halcyon days. And of course, it’s a welcome addition to a cherished catalogue from a voice whose characteristic smoothness and sincerity remains largely unmatched in the annals of history.
“You’re the Man” is available March 29 on Apple Music.