In the decade and a half since I first read the David Ritz-penned memoir ‘Divided Soul’, my thoughts about Marvin Gaye’s music became very much wrapped up in the occasionally magisterial manner in which Ritz characterized the complex and sometimes melodramatic life of his creative partner and close friend-Marvin Gaye. Now I realize that it has officially been 30 years since Mister Gaye was taken from this Earth by the gun of his own father,which he had actually given to him as it turned out. While Marvin’s music,especially from the 1970’s onward is some of the most captivating and eloquent of its era? Today its somewhat difficult for me to listen to it. The man simply had too much back story. Its not easy to listen to a song such as “Let’s Get It On” and realize it refers to a very severe May/December romance. Or the voyeuristic peak into his painful divorce on his ‘Hear,My Dear’ album from 1977.
Marvin Gaye should be an example of someone of whom one shouldn’t get the singer confused with their songs. However in this case? One would be missing the entire point of Marvin’s musical aura if they were to approach him that way. He was a master of being both lyrically confessional and generalized. His music provided a window into his soul, yet was flexible enough to represent whatever the listen was receiving from it. He understood the art of his music superbly in that respect. One of my very favorite Marvin Gaye albums was the last one he ever completed while he was alive. And it contained the very first Marvin Gaye song I can recall hearing-before I had the slightest idea what it’s title even meant. It was called “Sexual Healing”. And it was from his 1982 finale ‘Midnight Love’. And here now I present to you my very special review of this coda to an astounding and complex musical career.
Between 1979 and 1980,Marvin Gaye left the Motown label who had help establish his iconic career over (among other things) a dispute over what would end up as his final album for the label with In Our Lifetime,a record that returned him to the more sociopolitical concerns of his triumph with What’s Going On a decade earlier. During this time Marvin himself traveled between Hawaii (where he claimed he attempted suicide) to Ostend,Belgian. It was there that,having freshly severed his relationship with Motown managed to sign to the local imprint of Columbia records and begin plans to renew his musical career. Marvin was 43 years old,divorced and having drifted out of a difficult relationship with the rather young Janis Hunter. He hadn’t had a huge pop chart hit in almost six years. With the advent of Prince and fellow former Motowner Michael Jackson strongly on the horizon,the always highly self competitive Marvin was able to muster enough inner strength,passed his overarching personal demons,to record this album in 1982.
Over a mix ferocious drumming and conga based percussion “Midnight Lady” opens the album with a full on orchestra of bass synthesizer and melodic keyboard parts over the vocal symphony of himself Marvin was so willing to provide. “Sexual Healing”,the song that bought him back to the charts is build around a drum machine,Marvin’s voice and a tight rhythm guitar but surely makes its point well. “Rockin’ After Midnight” takes a cue from the funk found on the opener for a bass synth/rhythm guitar based jam grooving along for 6+ minutes. “Til Tomorrow” is a slow seduction ballad blending Marvin’s classic style of this with the more modern instrumental setting. “Turn On Some Music” is a slinky and harmonically vivid boogie funk type number finding Marvin using the metaphor of sexual foreplay with playing a vinyl album-perhaps this one. “Third World Girl” has a rather electronic take on a funk/reggae sound. “Joy” of course-with its potent brew of guitar,sax,Sly & The Family Stone like horn voicings,keyboard and vocal lines is indeed the most joyous groove this album has to offer. The album ends with a more full band revisit of the “Sexual Healing” melody on “My Love Is Waiting”.
Of course this would indeed be the final album of Marvin Gaye’s lifetime. Others would be released posthumously over the years. And while the accompanying Sexual Healing tour for this album wound up representing all the factors that led to Marvin’s all too early demise,this album showcases a very plausible and secure musical future for him. While always frustrated between his need to have commercial success and his desires to be a swinging jazz crooner,few albums balance these two desires in the same way as this. The music on this album is an interesting variation on the post disco/pre boogie funk sound of a type I never heard elsewhere. The bass synthesizer defines most of this album,the drum/percussion parts are both flamboyant and fluid and the use of the echoed clavinet hear is used almost in the manner of bluesy jazz harpsichord/organ than anything else. With its mixture of contemporary instrumentation and even than quite retro soloing effects combined with Marvin’s spacious vocal arrangements for an album that musically bares a stamp rather unique to it-all the while sounding very familiar. Even if it foreshadowed his end,the possibilities were boundless for a totally reinvented Marvin Gaye musical sound. And that is why I feel this is one of his finest and most thoroughly funk oriented albums.