Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Al Green

  • Back Up Train [Arista/Legacy, 1969]
  • Green Is Blues [The Right Stuff/Hi, 1969]
  • Al Green Gets Next to You [Hi, 1970] A
  • Let's Stay Together [Hi, 1972] A-
  • Al Green [Bell, 1972] B-
  • I'm Still in Love With You [Hi, 1972] A-
  • Call Me [Hi, 1973] A+
  • Livin' for You [Hi, 1973] A
  • Al Green Explores Your Mind [Hi, 1974] B+
  • Al Green's Greatest Hits [Hi, 1975] A
  • Al Green Is Love [Hi/The Right Stuff, 1975] A
  • Full of Fire [Hi, 1976] A-
  • Have a Good Time [Hi, 1976] B+
  • Al Green's Greatest Hits Volume II [Hi, 1977] A-
  • The Belle Album [Hi, 1977] A
  • Love Ritual [Hi, 1978] B-
  • Truth n' Time [Hi, 1979] B+
  • The Lord Will Make a Way [Myrrh, 1980] B+
  • Tokyo . . . Live! [Cream, 1981] B+
  • Higher Plane [Myrrh, 1981] A
  • Precious Lord [Hi/Myrrh, 1982] B
  • I'll Rise Again [Myrrh, 1983] A-
  • Trust in God [Myrrh, 1985] B
  • He Is the Light [A&M, 1986] B+
  • Soul Survivor [A&M, 1987] A-
  • I Get Joy [A&M, 1989] B+
  • Love Ritual: Rare and Previously Unreleased 1968-1976 [MCA, 1989] A-
  • One in a Million [Word/Epic, 1991] A
  • Love Is Reality [Word/Epic, 1992] Neither
  • Don't Look Back [BMG, 1995] A-
  • Greatest Hits [The Right Stuff/Hi, 1995] A+
  • Your Heart's in Good Hands [MCA, 1995] B+
  • Anthology [The Right Stuff, 1997] Choice Cuts
  • I Can't Stop [Blue Note, 2003] A-
  • The Absolute Best [The Right Stuff/Hi, 2004]
  • The Immortal Soul of Al Green [Hi/The Right Stuff, 2004]
  • Everything's OK [Blue Note, 2005] **
  • Lay It Down [Blue Note, 2008] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Back Up Train [Arista/Legacy, 1969]
"There was just no logical reason for that particular tune to take off like it did," Green has said of the title song, a 1967 one-shot that did the world the favor of letting a gifted young singer taste success. The album built up around it after he became famous establishes that the regional hit in question was catchier than the rest of the generic r&b he and his Grand Rapids boys were laying down. Maybe people just liked his voice. [Blender: 1]

Green Is Blues [The Right Stuff/Hi, 1969]
Not always such a genius, Mitchell began remaking young Al Green in 1969 by having him cover the Beatles, the Box Tops, and, less bizarrely, gritty r&b crooner Little Willie John. These attempts to conform to pop fashion are fairly fascinating in retrospect. But Green was better off making pop fashion conform to him. [Blender: 3]

Al Green Gets Next to You [Hi, 1970]
With Willie Mitchell performing the Booker T. function, Hi of Memphis has turned into a pocket of naivete (or reaction) (or traditionalism) on the confused black pop scene. Green plays the boyish Sam Cooke supplicant--or maybe a smooth Otis Redding, or an assertive Smokey Robinson--with the startling is-that-a-synthesizer? high note that climaxes "Tired of Being Alone" serving as a trademark. He also covers the Doors, the Temptations, Roosevelt Sykes, and the gospel-phase Johnnie Taylor. And closes out side two with some greasy hard funk like you just don't hear anymore. A

Let's Stay Together [Hi, 1972]
Maybe it's just that I'm so tired of the title single, but this is disappointing. Al Green Gets Next to You shows real emotional range--like Marvin Gaye, Green comes on both passive and active. The popularity of his romantic disappointment, however, has induced him to narrow his persona. Item: The most impressive cut on the LP is "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" Green's version is far superior to the Bee Gees' original, but the original is pure glop. Item: The album doesn't include one piece of real funk. Green is still the most intelligent male soul singer to emerge in years, and in the context of three or four more albums this one may sound fine. Right now, it's much too much of a good thing. A-

Al Green [Bell, 1972]
If Al decides to turn into Otis Redding after all, we may look back at this repackaging of his earliest recordings as the beginning of a great stylist. If he decides to turn into Diana Ross, as seems at least possible, we will forget it quickly enough. B-

I'm Still in Love With You [Hi, 1972]
Easily the most consistent soft-soul LP of the year, anchored in with an impressive collection of unforgettable background themes. I'm happy to own it. But I still remember that less than a year ago Green looked like he might turn into the Compleat Soul Man rather than Black Smoothie of the Year, and I make the following request: Remember Otis Redding. OK, Al? A-

Call Me [Hi, 1973]
I originally believed people would buy this only so they wouldn't have to get up and flip I'm Still in Love with You, and I was probably right. But no other album documents Green's genius for the daring nuance so thrillingly. "Stand Up" is the subtlest black identity song ever, "Jesus Is Waiting" a profession of faith you can believe in, and "Here I Am" an uptempo vehicle that sneaks up from in front of you. The interpretations of country weepers by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson are definitive. The vocals are tougher than on the two "classic" Green LPs that preceded it. And the rhythms are irresistible. Al Jackson's (and Henry Grimes's) thick third-beat 4/4 kicks in with all kinds of extra surprises, and as always it's only a frame for a music that moves as one sinuous body, with Green dodging and weaving at the head. A+

Livin' for You [Hi, 1973]
Green puts the finishing touch on his New Sexiness--non-macho but not long-suffering (Smokey Robinson), vague (Curtis Mayfield), button-down (Bill Withers), or wimpy (Russell Thompkins)--with "Let's Get Married," a promise of post-nuptial love and happiness that seems to presage small but engrossing orgasms stretching into an infinite future. And then, on a second side that opens with a stolen hymn to jailbait and continues through "Unchained Melody" and "My God Is Real" to a slow, sensuous eight-minute vamp tune called "Beware," he steps out. A

Al Green Explores Your Mind [Hi, 1974]
At first I found this a depressing combination of trivial ambitions and simple greed--the hit, "Sha-La-La," is his slightest to date, and side two might easily have been unflattened with a cover. But I kept playing "Sha-La-La" to reach "Take Me to the River," a synthesis of the spiritual root of Green's music (call it God) and its emotional referent (by which I mean sex) that may be his greatest song. And in the end I loved "Sha-La-La" too. B+

Al Green's Greatest Hits [Hi, 1975]
Green is less open and imaginative than Sam Cooke and less painfully word-wise than Smokey Robinson, but he belongs in their company, that of two of the half dozen prime geniuses of soul. His musical monomania substitutes Memphis for James Brown's Macon, and the consistency of his albums is matched only by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. But because he spins his music out over an area not much larger than a hankie, the albums also translate beautifully to a greatest hits format, and this is flawless. For those who refuse to believe the LPs contain hidden treasure and don't care that the singles "all sound the same." And for those, like me, who can go both ways with him. A

Al Green Is Love [Hi/The Right Stuff, 1975]
I never got with this album, which in the wake of the late-'74 grits-and-suicide incident kicked off Green's quick commercial decline with its only pop hit, the catchy, slight "L-O-V-E (Love)." That one sounds like it was waiting in the can for just such a disaster, and though eventually the post-paranoid "Rhymes" and the Afro-percussive "Love Ritual" caught my ear on compilations, the two other conventional songs here did not. Then I spun David Toop's midnight-soul concoction Sugar and Poison late this Valentine's Day and finally registered a genius piece I'd played 20 times before: the fluttering, vocalese "I Didn't Know," which makes eight minutes of impossible poetry from lines like "I didn't know that you feel like you do/Feel like you feel when you feel like you feel." Along with Sly's "Just Like a Baby," "I Didn't Know" is the linchpin of Sugar and Poison, and also the Rosetta stone of this album, which explores four or five other versions of the same idea. "Love Ritual." "The Love Sermon." It's all L-O-V-E. You got a problem with that? A

Full of Fire [Hi, 1976]
Although the Buck Owens cover isn't up to the Willies and Krisses of yore and the hook riffs remain in slight decline, there are definitely more good songs here than on Al Green Is Love. They repay textual analysis, too. Last time the mind-boggler had Green improvising nonsense verse at robbers and other interlopers; this time he assumes the persona of God the Son ("I can see you but you can't see me") and makes you love it. After all, visionaries are supposed to be far out, and this is one of the few we've got. A-

Have a Good Time [Hi, 1976]
Green's recent instability is usually blamed on hot grits and the short half-life of formula soul, but I'm beginning to wonder whether drummer Al Jackson, who died in 1975, wouldn't have steadied the last two albums, and I expect that this is an attempt to compensate. Wilson Pickett it ain't, but it is the straightest (and hardest) soul Green has put out since his breakthrough--the horns way up, the vocals shouting confidence and technique. Problem is, it's forced--the Hi folks (like most of their peers) can't turn out songs distinctive enough to hold up under the treatment. It's still full of fire, though, and Green is still the finest popular singer of the decade, and I'm still gratified to see him on his feet. B+

Al Green's Greatest Hits Volume II [Hi, 1977]
I welcome this proof of the greatness of Green's lesser and later hits, but I'd prefer a more eccentric (hence accurate) and equally impressive selection--one that replaced the two non-singles from I'm Still in Love With You (a lengthened "Love and Happiness" and "For the Good Times," live staples that typify his pop mode) with, for instance, "There's No Way," "That's the Way It Is," and "Love Ritual." A-

The Belle Album [Hi, 1977]
Since 1975 Green has been making albums on which two or three real songs were supplemented by material so vague and unpredictable it almost announced itself as filler improvised in the studio--which is not to say I didn't find much of it hypnotic. Now, on a self-produced album focused around his own (frequently acoustic) guitar, the filler comes front and center with new assurance and perhaps even its own formal identity; the real songs themselves--his best in years--sound improvised in the studio. And more than ever, it all holds together around Green's agile rhythm, dynamics, and coloration and his obsession with the soul-body dualism at the heart of the genre he now rules unchallenged. A

Love Ritual [Hi, 1978]
The only thing this product--compiled from his radically uneven later albums--teaches us about Green is why London left the title tune off Greatest Hits Volume II. Needed it for corporate revenge after Hi deserted the sinking ship. B-

Truth n' Time [Hi, 1979]
Reports that Green was no longer writing all his own material worried some supporters, but in fact composition has counted for very little in Green's recent work and is generally improved here. This is his most careful and concise music since Livin' for You; in fact, it's too damn concise, clocking in at 26:39 for eight cuts, although the sustaining 6:07-minute disco disc version of "Wait Here" would have put it over half an hour. None of the originals are quite up to "Belle" or "I Feel Good," but every song is solid, and two audacious covers of songs heretofore recorded exclusively by women are his best in five years. The intensity of the 2:12-minute "I Say a Little Prayer" (dig that male chorus) is precious in a time of dance-length cuts, and although I know Green devotes "To Sir With Love" to his dad, I'm glad Proposition 6 was defeated before its release. B+

The Lord Will Make a Way [Myrrh, 1980]
Think of it this way: he knew that sex was running out of inspiration for him, so he moved on to God as his source of ecstasy--an ecstasy he approaches most readily in what he really lives for, music. I might end up praising God myself if He or She gave me the most beautiful voice in creation and then let me keep it when I descended into purgatory. As it is, I'll praise Al for his lead guitar, which lends such a down-by-the-riverside feel to these rolling gospel tunes that you hardly notice the violins. B+

Tokyo . . . Live! [Cream, 1981]
You can tell when Green is bad live because he doesn't sing, often deserting mike or even stage for emphasis, which would be hard to render on disc. So his in-concert double had to be pretty strong. Like Otis's Live in Europe, it captures a sensitive soul man at his toughest and most outgoing. But unlike Live in Europe it offers no ecstatic epiphanies to make up for the forced crescendos--"I Feel Good" is louder in this version but wilder on The Belle Album. And speaking of loud, somebody fucked up the drum mix. B+

Higher Plane [Myrrh, 1981]
Meek and mild, The Lord Will Make a Way was Green's sincere attempt to bend to gospel tradition, but on this record it's tradition that bends. He exerts himself with such fervor that I don't even mind when he and Margie Joseph (a lame pop singer anyway) desecularize "People Get Ready." I've always believed angels should sing like they still have something going down below. And if there are rhythm sections like this in Heaven (praises be to new drummer Aaron Purdie), the place may be worth a stopover after all. A

Precious Lord [Hi/Myrrh, 1982]
Couldn't figure out why I found myself basically unmoved by this exquisitely sung collection of hymns, four of them familiar to me since my days in the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing. Then I realized that the Memphis groove of Al's first two Myrrh albums had somehow turned into rote tent-gospel timekeeping. Then I read the back of the album and learned that it was cut in Nashville, with all that implies. Which may also be why I know the material from First Pres. Going "sacred" on us, Al? Crossing over to the other side? B

I'll Rise Again [Myrrh, 1983]
This isn't great Al--it doesn't come through with the spiritual charge of a Call Me (secular) or Higher Plane (religious). But it is good Al, and after much soul-searching I've stopped worrying about what kind of gospel music it might be. If Green wants to attribute his positivity to romantic bliss, either, though I did find it easier to suspend disbelief. And while Christ and Eros are both more rewarding objects of faith than music, my guess is that at this point music is Al's bottom line--his very personal road to religious and secular glory glory. A-

Trust in God [Myrrh, 1985]
Al shouldn't let his originals out of Sunday school these days, but he's always had a way with the covers. "Lean on Me" and the rushed, simplistic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" are too obvious, but elsewhere he's his usual catholic self (that's a small C, Al--look it up); here he takes over "No Not One," which he found in an old church, and there "Up the Ladder to the Roof," which he found on an old Supremes album. And the uptempo country rollick he makes out of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" is up there with the downcast urban plaint he made out of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." B

He Is the Light [A&M, 1986]
It's not that Al's reunion with Willie Mitchell makes no difference--the difference is fairly striking when you listen for it. What's striking when you think about it, though, is that you have to listen for it. Leroy Hodges's famous bottom keeps the record flowing like none of Green's other Jesus LPs, but it's still songs that make or break--and in this case do neither. B+

Soul Survivor [A&M, 1987]
His boyish delicacy and mellow insouciance have roughened slightly with the years, but he can still muster that high moan, and here he bids to connect with unbelievers once again. The key's the covers, and those who consider "He Ain't Heavy" bad company for "You've Got a Friend" and vice versa should pause to recall "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart": just as the shameless yet muted poignancy of that homage dramatized the poignancy of Al's crossover dreams, the low-down show of agape he makes of these two universalist-humanist war-horses transports his Jesus fixation into the realm of schlock, where it fits in real nice. A-

I Get Joy [A&M, 1989]
By now he's B.B. King or Ray Charles--his genre exercises are more joyful than lesser mortals' great leaps forward. Only Al is more consistent, and he shares his genre with Amy Grant: pop songs addressed to God. What distinguishes this exercise is unflinching formal exposition--no Supremes or James Taylor ringers. Even the electrofunk belongs. B+

Love Ritual: Rare and Previously Unreleased 1968-1976 [MCA, 1989]
Cut one wild night in early 1975, the polyrhythmic title track was hot enough to lead Al Green Is Love and lend its name to a misbegotten 1978 compilation before Colin Escott ever dreamed of remixing it, but that's not to say it isn't even wilder with strings censored and voice and percussion up front. Livin' for You's "So Good To Be Here" also thrives, and the rest is as advertised--singles and outtakes originally deemed too eccentric for general consumption, many of them unadorned uptempo jams with the eternal Hi Rhythm Section. Willie Mitchell was no fool--"Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which were released, top "Mimi" and "Ride Sally Ride," which weren't. But Escott is no fool either, and in retrospect these songs of mysterious origin cohere into a phonogram as desirable as Greatest Hits Volume II. A-

One in a Million [Word/Epic, 1991]
Al is no less a self-starting weirdo when he sings gospel than in any other showbiz context. The greatest of the soul singers barely missed a beat making his conversion--he remained all personal stamp and driven style, a purely human miracle. So maybe I relate to his gospel because that isn't really what it is, although it helps that I loved his voice like a church lady long before he turned it to the service of the Lord. Combining the best of two pretty good albums with one cut from the made-whole Higher Plane and another from the stiff Precious Lord, this is where ye of little faith will see the error of your ways. A

Love Is Reality [Word/Epic, 1992] Neither

Don't Look Back [BMG, 1995]
This hard-to-find, slightly long-winded return to Mammon isn't what it should be, might be, or in theory will be, once MCA finalizes a promised revamp with its Hall of Fame inductee (hey guys, there's an angle--and there it goes, receding into the distance). Since eight of 13 titles feature the word "love" (OK, once it's "lovin'," and in parentheses), the pruning will presumably start somewhere in there, although as with so much great minor Green not one of those performances lacks vocal frisson. Executive mastermind Arthur Baker finds a use for Curtis Stigers on the title tune and cedes Al a nice Charles & Eddie song, but the primary hands-on guys are Fine Young Cannibals David Steele and Andy Cox. On their "One Love," which strikes my impractical ear as the sure shot MCA craves, Green negotiates a thoroughly modern electrobeat so effortlessly you gotta believe he can live the rest of his life without God or Hi Rhythm. A-

Greatest Hits [The Right Stuff/Hi, 1995]
With the Hall of Famer's pop oeuvre now in print and worth owning (start Call Me, Gets Next to You, Living for You, Belle Album), this 15-track expansion of the 10-track classic may seem de trop. But unlike Aretha, his only rival vocally, Al never sold himself short in the studio. Where the albums follow the vagaries of genius, the hits exploit Al's personal production line, every one a perfect soul record and a perfect pop record in whatever order suits your petty little values. Brashly feminine and seductively woman-friendly, he breaks free in a register that darts and floats and soars into falsetto with startling frequency and beguiling ease. He's so gorgeous, so sexy, so physically attractive that only masochists want to live without him. A+

Your Heart's in Good Hands [MCA, 1995]
MCA is docked a notch for updating Don't Look Back by hiring Queen of Banality Diane Warren to write a new lead track, and then having Little King of Funk Lite Narada Michael Walden produce it. Jodeci's DeVante provides the other new one, and although Al schmears his mythic high range all over both, their timid low range sounds like nothing more than a suave market ploy up against the emulated Hi Rhythm and borrowed Young Cannibals propelling everything that follows. B+

Anthology [The Right Stuff, 1997]
This plush but basically redundant triple-CD has two major selling points: "Love and Happiness" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" are the best live recordings he ever released. [Blender: 3]
"(Live) How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"; "(Live) Love and Happiness" Choice Cuts

I Can't Stop [Blue Note, 2003]
His midrange less creamy, he shouts a lot and relies on falsetto to make a point. Although Smokey Robinson and Seth Swirsky songs perked up his last pop move, he takes composer's credit for every shining star and pledge of love, generally leaving a share for his new old pal Willie Mitchell, who for his part proves all too willing to put subtlety behind him and get bumptious with the horns. So don't believe kneejerks crying comeback. But don't believe regular jerks whining hype either. Material has never been a big deal for a singer whose arrangements always play second fiddle to his inventions, and that singer has retained plenty of voice and the guile to know what to do with it. Give these performances time and they cohere, not as classy modernizations or returns to a form he never lost, but as artistic statements from someone with no history of taking his talent for granted. New classic: "My Problem Is You," all 6:28 of it. A-

The Absolute Best [The Right Stuff/Hi, 2004]
Less schlock-prone than any of his peers among the great 20th-century singers except Billie Holiday, Al Green has never had his name on a bad album. This two-disc exploitation (with a second four-disc box due later in 2004) is superb throughout, two previously unreleaseds included. It would be a spendthrift purchase for any owner of Al Green's Greatest Hits, all 15 of whose selections it duplicates (two in alternate versions), or the previous box, Anthology. But the 19 non-Greatest Hits tracks--all of classic '70s vintage, topped by "Simply Beautiful," "Love Ritual," "Rhymes," and "Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)"--are markedly sweeter and sharper than those on the remarkably schlocky More Greatest Hits. Caveat emptor or dig it as the case may be. [Blender: 4]

The Immortal Soul of Al Green [Hi/The Right Stuff, 2004]
See: Tracks review.

Everything's OK [Blue Note, 2005]
Not great--OK ("I Can Make Music," "I Wanna Hold You"). **

Lay It Down [Blue Note, 2008]
Between producer ?uestlove's command of tradition, including cannier drums than Green has had since Al Jackson Jr. was taken from us, and the 62-year-old singer's skillfully tended chops, this sounded fine straight off. But the formula seemed slightly pat, and I didn't hear a "Call Me," much less a "Love and Happiness." So I put it away, came back, immersed, and noticed two things. 1) The first four or five tracks work as songs, the instant minor classic the one that clarifies a basic principle: "Your love is just for me/It's just for me/It's just for me, for me, for me/It's just for me." 2) No Jesus, which some count a failing, but not secular me. Except for the finale--"Write this down if you can/I'm a cold, hard-working man," so I did--here is that rare thing, a credible album entirely devoted to connubial bliss. True, Green spends more time supplicating than celebrating, and probably fabricated the whole scenario. But he knows his subject, and he doesn't need Jesus to lay it down. A-

See Also