Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Linton Kwesi Johnson

  • Forces of Victory [Mango, 1979] A-
  • Bass Culture [Mango, 1980] B+
  • Making History [Island, 1984] A
  • Reggae Greats: Linton Kwesi Johnson [Mango, 1984] B
  • In Concert With the Dub Band [Shanachie, 1985] A-
  • Tings An' Times [Shanachie, 1991] A
  • More Time [LKJ, 1999] *
  • Live in Paris With the Dennis Bovell Dub Band [Wrasse, 2005] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Forces of Victory [Mango, 1979]
You have every right to be suspicious of a Jamaican-English intellectual who writes message poems in patois and then sing-speaks them with the support of top reggae professionals. But you're wrong. Politics aside, Johnson has fresh musical gifts--an inside-outside awareness of the inherent musicality of Caribbean English and a rhythmic touch as uncanny as his band's. On this album they're enhanced by insinuating horn charts, even melodies. While some prefer his debut, the bloody Dread Beat an' Blood (Virgin Front Line import), for striking closer to the broken bone of British racism, I actually like the abstractions here better, especially on "Reality Poem." Also, it's a relief to encounter a reggae album that doesn't once refer to Jah. A-

Bass Culture [Mango, 1980]
As if to dispel suspicions that he's an interloper, the poet emphasizes music--sometimes dubwise, sometimes jazzy, with guitarist John Kpiaye cutting the difference in a satisfying show of state-of-the-art support. But Johnson's command of the tonalities and rhythms of Jamaican English is the most musical thing about an artist whose musicality isn't in question, and the more room he gives his players, the less that leaves him. B+

Making History [Island, 1984]
For a while I thought the light-handed fills, tricky horn parts, and swinging rhythms went against the artist's hard-hitting message, not to mention my own hard-hitting tastes. Only after seeing him live did I recognize those embellishments for what they were--hooks. Dennis Bovell's arrangements take the natural lilt of LKJ's self-conscious patois to a new level of musicality. He may not be quite the man of the people he wants to be, but he comes a damn sight closer than most leftists (not to mention most semipopular musicians), which is why he puts so much care into the pleasure of his propaganda. And he's as smart as anyone could want to be, which is why he puts so much care into his analysis. A

Reggae Greats: Linton Kwesi Johnson [Mango, 1984]
Thrown together to fill out a reissue series, its excellent tracks not programmed but shuffled, this is useless unless it's the only LKJ you can find. So look harder--for Making History, Forces of Victory. B

In Concert With the Dub Band [Shanachie, 1985]
If Island's best-of was a superfluity, this live double is sweet excess, adding the beat, heat, and high spirits of reggae's most cosmopolitan backup to Johnson's calm, reasoned fury. No new material, but the five titles from back when the billing was Poet and the Roots might as well be. Even Making History, which is where Dennis Bovell started fancying up the horns, has gotten more extreme on tour. A-

Tings An' Times [Shanachie, 1991]
A concept album about political fatigue, a theme the man understands deeply and cogently and aphoristically and colloquially and polysyllabically. Johnson always talks, never sings, but his assumed patois is like Leonard Cohen with funkentelechy--the speech of his people is music to his ears, and the music of his people is manna. So the riddims skip by on Dennis Bovell's ska-speedy tempos, graced with tricky guitar hooks and colored with fiddle and accordion that sing Hungary and Algeria and Colombia and the Rio Grande as Johnson "consider how young rebels get old." "Sense Outa Nansense" is a homily about innocents and fools played out as an animal fable, its punch line not words but a regretfully disparaging click of the tongue. "Story" gets behind black masks. "Tings an' Times" starts "Beat doped demoralized/Dizzied dazed and traumatized" and goes on from there. "Di Good Life" utters the name of socialism--"Some say him is a ghost/Some say him is a sage/But nobody know him rightfully yet/Or where him come from." "Di Anfinish Revalueshan" somehow finds hope in confusion and compromise. And in "Mi Revalueshanary Fren," Linton tries to reason with an old Marxist about glasnost. Problem is, the Marxist has wigged out--all the reason is on Linton's side. Analysis, analysis, who's got the analysis? Surely not a reggae man? A

More Time [LKJ, 1999]
most poetic when he's most quotidian ("If I Waz a Tap Natch Poet," "Reggae Fi Bernard") *

Live in Paris With the Dennis Bovell Dub Band [Wrasse, 2005]
Though he's only released two albums since his last live one, 20 years ago now, LKJ retains the calm confidence with which savvy ideologues generate authority--so much more convincing in the long run than fervent rhetoric. With leftists everywhere twisting in anxiety or flailing out in defensive contempt, his voice alone is a comfort; announcing "a couple of old anti-fascist numbers" or matter-of-factly explaining the economic program that will bring everyone the precious gift of "more time," he sounds so intelligent, decent, and uncompromised that you feel political struggle can be a sane and rewarding life choice. His voice quieter but undiminished, his band subtler but no less tricky or effective, he unblushingly repeats five songs from the 1985 set, and although I wish he'd tapped Tings an' Times more--"Sense Outa Nansense," certainly--I sure didn't mind hearing the early material again. A-

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