Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Guide: Back Catalogue

Al Green

Emerging from a tradition of soul shouters, he proved that a murmur could be manly, too. Then he joined the ministry.

It starts with the voice. You either get it or you don't--and though it took too long, by now almost everyone does. Al Green's midrange generates a mellow burn like good single-malt Scotch and is cut by a rotgut roughness when he growls and a signature falsetto finer than wine. It's hard to believe the Michigan-raised, Memphis-based Arkansan, born Albert Greene and now 61, was once dissed for being less manly than Otis Redding--women have always adored him. He seemed both vulnerable and passionate, and he minded his subtle touches like a love man should. Green started in gospel, and after a return to Jesus and a fall from grace on the charts, he reinvented himself as a gospel singer in 1980 and eventually amassed a sacred catalogue to rival (although not equal) his secular one. That catalogue, especially his miraculously consistent Hi albums with producer Willie Mitchell, has replaced macho pleas and pledges as the epitome of soul.

Essential

*****

I'M STILL IN LOVE WITH YOU
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1972

Brought to fruition by the visionary "Love and Happiness," this is where Green and Mitchell perfected their quietly insinuating, viciously funky sound. Serenaded by ladies, buoyed by strings, punctuated by horns and pumped by the Al Jackson--driven rhythm section, Green croons well-crafted promises made to be broken and unhinges his falsetto to prove he's not just sweet but spiritual. Roy Orbison delivered "Oh, Pretty Woman" as a command. Green makes it an entreaty. Simply beautiful.

*****

CALL ME
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1973

Green's fifth LP elaborates his man-in-need act with the patient attention that defines his limitless sex appeal--check how delicately he floats over his own vocal to cap the opener. Bereft Hank Williams and Willie Nelson covers prove Green could have beaten Ray Charles at the country game. "Stand Up" is a great unknown black pride and/or human self-help song. And the bewitching "Jesus Is Waiting" presages his future.

*****

LIVIN' FOR YOU
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1973

Maybe because its two singles fell short at a time when he was still a hitmaker, this is his secret gem. It's also his most domestic album by way of "Home Again" and especially "Let's Get Married," with its long climax and casual, clinching "might as well." But after the free-associated, barely legal "Sweet Sixteen," it also becomes his craziest. Why else did he choose to cover "Unchained Melody"? Or follow "My God Is Real" with "Beware"?

Great

*****

GETS NEXT TO YOU
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1971

Green is hard on his second album, the hardest and most Stax-like music he ever recorded. "The blood-and-thunder soul shouter was fading away," he says. "I could make it look and sound easy because for me, it was." Which he proves from the fierce Temptations cover to the thumping call-and-response of "You Say It," earning titles like Roosevelt Sykes's "Driving Wheel" and his own "I'm a Ram." Dig his near-spoken improvisation on the Doors' "Light My Fire"--even though he never liked it himself.

****

THE BELLE ALBUM
Capitol/Hi, 1977

Green claims the title track on this artistic comeback achieves a sound "more layered and textured than anything I'd done before," which is saying something. Addressed to a honey he rejects for God, it's also his most layered meld of sacred and secular. The best record he ever made without Willie Mitchell, it mixes extremes of light and heavy--lots of Green's acoustic guitar over thick drums and bass.

*****

THE ABSOLUTE BEST
The Right Stuff, 2004

There are now six secular Al Green best-ofs--three singles and one each at two, three and four discs. Problem is, the off cuts on his exceptionally well-constructed studio albums are so often intriguingly eccentric that even this cheap, consistent-down-to-the-bonus-tracks double is of questionable utility if not economy--lacks "Jesus Is Waiting," for instance. Alternative: the flawless Greatest Hits, the perfect Starter Al.

Check It Out

***

LET'S STAY TOGETHER
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1972

The title tune was his only No. 1, and the LP declared his commitment to subtlety. If he hadn't yet commanded his new groove, he did establish the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" as a greater gift to humanity than Saturday Night Fever itself.

***

AL GREEN EXPLORES YOUR MIND
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1974

After his five major Hi albums, there's a falloff to the merely good ones. This is the choicest, because it starts with his biggest song, "Sha La La," and "Take Me to the River," the rebirth metaphor he patterned his life after.

****

YOUR HEART'S IN GOOD HANDS
MCA, 1995

More than even Marvin Gaye, Green was the progenitor of a slick R&B he has indulged in only once. Pushing 50, he adjusts with no apparent effort to modern production styles. He even survives a Diane Warren song.

****

I CAN'T STOP
Blue Note, 2003

His finest late pop album is a reunion with Mitchell, who turned 75 that year. Green's voice can no longer shade with sprightly delicacy, so he gets loud, strengthened by two decades in the pulpit at his own Memphis church. Mitchell's response: He pumps it up.

Be Careful

***

AL GREEN IS LOVE
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1975

This is Green's grits album--his post-convalescence response to the notorious 1974 incident in which a lover, who took his songs' avowals literally, burned the skin off his back with a pot of boiling hominy before committing suicide in his kitchen. He looks a little blurry on the cover of a record where four of the first six songs name-check L-O-V-E.

***

FULL OF FIRE
Capitol/Hi, 1976

Lifted by three excellent crypto-gospel numbers, it fails to peak even on its title hit, which Green now rightly deems a tad automatic. With the Hi musicians scattered all over the country, spontaneous moments of inspiration were getting scarce.

***

TOKYO . . . LIVE!
The Right Stuff, 1981

Green's live genius translates poorly to record--his variations are too subtle, and it's hard to capture that moment when he rears back from the mic and his falsetto still penetrates to the back of the hall. Also, the drummer at this 1978 concert was way too loud.

***

EVERYTHING'S OK
Blue Note, 2005

Without guaranteeing all of Green's gospel records, say this: He's never made a bad album. But as you delve into the generic, you take what difference you can get. Green pushing 60 sure beats Green sweating 30, because it's so much rarer--makes it sweeter to settle for his just OK.

For Fans Only

***

GREEN IS BLUES
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1970

Not always a genius, Mitchell began remaking Green with covers of the Beatles and, less oddly, gritty R&B crooner Little Willie John. Green's attempts to conform to pop fashion are fairly fascinating. But he was better off making fashion conform to him.

***

HAVE A GOOD TIME
The Right Stuff/Hi, 1976

The end of his '70s run with Mitchell plugs nine skillful new Green songs into a no-fail formula and punches up the horns. Said Green: "It was another record in a long string of records stretching out way behind me and, for all I knew, way ahead of me."

***

TRUTH N' TIME
Capitol/EMI/Hi, 1978

The final album before he devoted himself to his ministry is yet another expression of his mixed feelings about God and Mammon. The two covers, "I Say a Little Prayer" and the startling "To Sir With Love," are more inspired than any of the originals. Mammon just wasn't doing it for him anymore.

*

BACK UP TRAIN
Arista/Legacy, 1967

"There was just no logical reason for that particular tune to take off," Green says of the title song. The album built up around it 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.

Further Listening

****

THE LORD WILL MAKE A WAY & HIGHER PLANE
Myrrh/Hi, 1980/1981

If you can live with Jesus, Green's first two gospel LPs top any of his late-'70s stuff, except The Belle Album. The first is a tad reverent, the second every bit as major as The Belle Album--more than half of it is reprised on 2000's Greatest Gospel Hits.

***

ANTHOLOGY
Capitol, 1997

Docked not one but two stars for redundancy,t his plush triple has two selling points. The performances of "Love and Happiness" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" are the best live recordings Green has ever released. And the liner notes are also better than average.

Blender, May 2007