Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Marvin Gaye [extended]

  • What's Going On [Tamla, 1971] B+
  • Trouble Man [Tamla, 1972] C
  • Let's Get It On [Tamla, 1973] A-
  • Diana & Marvin [Motown, 1973] B+
  • Live [Tamla, 1974] C+
  • I Want You [Tamla, 1976] C+
  • Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits [Tamla, 1976] B-
  • Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium [Tamla, 1977] B-
  • Here My Dear [Tamla, 1978] B+
  • In Our Lifetime [Tamla, 1981] A-
  • Midnight Love [Columbia, 1982] A-
  • Dream of a Lifetime [Columbia, 1985] C+
  • Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye [Motown, 1986] A-
  • Romantically Yours [Columbia, 1986] C+
  • What's Going On (Deluxe Edition) [Motown, 2001] **
  • The Very Best of Marvin Gaye [Motown, 2001] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

What's Going On [Tamla, 1971]
This may be a groundbreaking personal statement, but like any Berry Gordy quickie it's baited skimpily: only three great tunes. "What's Going On," "Inner City Blues," and "Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)" are so original they reveal ordinary Motown-political as the benign market manipulation it is. And Gaye keeps getting more subtle vocally and rhythmically. But the rest is pretty murky even when the lyrical ideas are good--I like the words on "What's Happenin' Brother" and "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" quite a bit--and the religious songs that bear Gaye's real message are suitably shapeless. Worst of all, because they're used a lot, are David Van De Pitte's strings, the lowest kind of movie-background dreck. B+

Trouble Man [Tamla, 1972]
Buy the single unless you like soundtrack albums. This ain't no super-fly shit. C

Let's Get It On [Tamla, 1973]
Post-Al Green What's Going On, which means it's about fucking rather than the human condition, thank the wholly holey. Gaye is still basically a singles artist, and the title track, as much a masterpiece as "Inner City Blues," dominates in a way "I'm Still in Love with You," say, doesn't. Then again, it's an even better song, and this album prolongs its seductive groove to an appropriate thirty minutes plus. A-

Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye: Diana & Marvin [Motown, 1973]
Motown's record division could really put out some terrific albums if the publishing division wasn't always butting in. Of the six Motown-composed tracks, only Ashford & Simpson's "Just Say, Just Say" and the hit, "My Mistake," have any charm of their own. But this girl-boy duo sound just great on two Bell-Creed songs and the follow-up single, Wilson Pickett's "Don't Knock My Love." And while I suspect it was Marvin who edged Diana into the warmest and loosest--and streetest--performance of her career, maybe it was just the proximity of "Pledging My Love." B+

Live [Tamla, 1974]
There's inspired singing here, but even on the stupendous version of "Trouble Man" Gene Page's orchestra intrudes--Gaye hasn't managed to mix the instruments into the unified background presence of his recent studio albums. Also: seven great oldies banished to a "Fossil Medley," and "Jan," conceivably the worst song he's ever written. C+

I Want You [Tamla, 1976]
This isn't as disgraceful as would first appear--as disco-identified mood mewzick for light necking it offers nifty engineering, pleasant harmonies, and the occasional snatch of melody. But as a Marvin Gaye record it's a Leon Ware record. Ware is the producer who cowrote every one of these . . . tunes? segments? . . . cuts (which is more than Marvin can claim). But was it Ware who instructed Marvin to eliminate all depth and power from his voice? I mean, if you're into insisting on sex it's in bad taste to whine about it. C+

Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits [Tamla, 1976]
Even though it omitted "Inner City Blues" while offering "How Sweet It Is" and "Can I Get a Witness" (already included on four other Marvin Gaye compilations and who knows how many Motown anthologies), I thought this might serve a function, since I find all of Gaye's '70s albums except Let's Get It On distressingly uneven. But "I Want You," "After the Dance," and the live version of "Distant Lover" are embarrassed by such stellar company. I guess when I want to hear "Trouble Man" I'll put on Anthology. B-

Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium [Tamla, 1977]
Especially considering how awkward Gaye can be on stage, this isn't bad for a live Motown album--the arrangements are finky, but some of Marvin's more interesting vocal quirks seem to have survived editing. Which is not to suggest that the live stuff is worth owning. "Got To Give It Up," on the other hand, is his quadrennial studio masterpiece, and its 11:48 are cut up on the single. Still, I think the single is what I'd buy--while petitioning for a disco disc. B-

Here My Dear [Tamla, 1978]
The brightness of the disco remix Motown has made available on "A Funky Space Reincarnation" is a vivid reminder of how pathologically laid back Gaye is striving to be. I mean, seventy minutes of pop music with nary a melody line almost qualifies as a tour de force, and the third side barely escapes the turntable at all. Yet this is a fascinating, playable album. Its confessional ranges from naked poetry ("Somebody tell me please/Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" is a modernist trope that ranks with any of Elvis Costello's) to rank jive, because Gaye's self-involvement is so open and unmediated, guileless even at its most insincere, it retains unusual documentary charm. And within the sweet, quiet, seductive, and slightly boring mood Gaye is at such pains to realize, his rhythmic undulations and whisper-to-a-scream timbral shifts can engross the mind, the body, and above all the ear. Definitely a weird one. B+

In Our Lifetime [Tamla, 1981]
Personal to David and Brian: For techno-Afro atmospherics, try this. Pay attention to Nigel Martinez's drumming on "Far Cry" or Frank Blair's bass on "Funk Me" and you might even try to hire them. And though the words are confused, at least they're sincere, which in an age of irony has its advantages. Just like on your record, not one cut announces itself, but that's only because these days Gaye aspires to a line (by which I mean a con or a come-on as well as a musical schema) more sinuous and insinuating than the peculiar hooks and JB elementals of yore. And though not one cut announces itself, every one gets through the door. A-

Midnight Love [Columbia, 1982]
Gaye's always had more feel for sexual healing than for wholly-holy or inner city blues, and this album's concentration on the carnal is one reason it's his best ever: after a week of grumping about his coke-snorting super freaks, dick-brained Bob Marley tribute, and jive ooh-la-la, I realized I was in bed with the man anyway and decided to lie back enjoy it. His wet croon makes up for the lost grit of Let's Get It On, and never before has the rhythm master layered the tracks with such deftness and power. King Sunny Adé, meet Dr. Feelgood. A-

Dream of a Lifetime [Columbia, 1985]
Like a lot of rock and roll geniuses, Gaye was also a nut (or jerk, if you prefer). One reason he worked so assiduously in the studio was that he was loath to let us see all the way inside him, which means that these posthumously consummated outtakes and private jokes are by his own best standard too unmediated to carry much aesthetic weight. By my own best standards, too. On "Ain't It Funny (How Things Turn Around)," the only track that bears Gaye's rhythmic and harmonic signature rather than Gordon Banks's or Harvey Fuqua's schlock-it-to-'em, and "Savage in the Sack," a joke he knew enough to find funny, his wit and charm shine through. Elsewhere he's just letting off guilt in heavenly visions or sexual fantasies out of control. Maybe bondage freaks will find "Masochistic Beauty" a turn-on--what do I know? I know what I infer from "Sanctified Lady" (formerly "Sanctified Pussy")--that this man found himself despising women for doing the kinky things he forced them to do. And there's no way that's a turn-on. C+

Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye [Motown, 1986]
These "never before released masters" were rejected for good reason--they lacked both the hooky spark that spelled hit to Mr. Gordy and the show-tune gentility he thought appropriate to the upscale LP market. The result is a groove album Motown wouldn't have risked back in 1965, by which time seven of these twelve tracks had been laid down, though not so sparklingly engineered. As much a showcase for the Funk Brothers band as for the jazz-tinged pop-gospel phrasing of the label's pet matinee idol, it's a chance to hear Motown's music unalloyed, without the distraction of sweet memory. And damned if I can tell what flaw Gordy descried in Smokey's "Just Like a Man," Ashford & Simpson's "Dark Side of the World," or Cosby & Stevenson's "That's the Way It Goes." A-

Romantically Yours [Columbia, 1986]
The sad testament of a tormented weirdo who longed to redeem himself in the world of middle-class convention. On side one he covers "standards" that are beneath him ("More"), beyond him ("Fly Me to the Moon"), or beside the point ("Maria"). On side two he attempts to write his own. The singing isn't bad--was it ever? The strings are godawful. C+

What's Going On (Deluxe Edition) [Motown, 2001]
"alternate Detroit mix" useless, concert version hornier and less strung up ("Head Title," "Sixties Medley: That's the Way Love Is/You/I Heard It Through the Grapevine/Little Darling [I Need You]/You're All I Need to Get By/Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing/Your Precious Love/Pride and Joy/Stubborn Kind of Fellow") **

The Very Best of Marvin Gaye [Motown, 2001]
Gaye was so rhythmically and dynamically astute that his albums sustained whether he was a Motown matinee idol (try In the Groove) or a self-actualizing nut (Let's Get It On). But that doesn't mean they were perfect, which goes double for the inflated What's Going On. His first not-too-big/not-too-small since the long-departed Anthology puts 19 songs on the idol disc (including six key duets) and 15 on the nut disc (including one solid previously unreleased). Gaye makes much more than most out of waving his dick, expanding his mind, and proving that jazz needs him more than he needs jazz. But in the end, the airy grit, hip innocence, and invention-within-stricture of his clean-cut period are more magical and probably deeper. A

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