AL GREEN: CALL ME (1973)
1) Call Me (Come Back Home); 2) Have You Been Making Out OK?; 3) Stand Up; 4) I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; 5) Your Love Is Like The Morning Sun; 6) Here I Am (Come And Take Me); 7) Funny How Time Slips Away; 8) You Ought To Be With Me; 9) Jesus Is Waiting.
Robert Christgau gives Call Me an A+ rating, and so do many other critics, whether influenced by "The Dean" or not. I have not been able to understood what exactly is it that separates Call Me from the rest and so unequivocally turns it into the pinnacle of Green's career. But there is hardly any need to turn that into a pretext for not sleeping nights. It is obvious, anyway, that an Al Green fan without a copy of Call Me is like a Michael Jackson fan without a copy of Off The Wall, regardless of whether this or Thriller is his highest point — in other words, a ridiculous and bizarre entity that defies scientific explanation.
Innovation-wise, Call Me makes one bold step forward by taking two well-known country standards — Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' and Willie Nelson's 'Funny How Time Slips Away' — and transforming them into classic Seventies' country-soul with Al Green's seal of approval. Having already shown that he could effortlessly (or with but a little effort) Greenify radical R'n'B, whitebread ballads, and even Brit-pop, he now takes his cue from Ray Charles and delves into country. 'I'm So Lonesome' is a particular stunner, a song whose mood and lyrics suit Al's general self-pitying style so well it must have been the obvious choice; he injects a little bit of different emotion into each syllable, and if you thought, like me, that Hank's original was intentionally somewhat detached, containing its grief to just the lyrics, you wouldn't be able to think that about Green's version.
Another reason for the high critical opinion might be that, in fact, the whole album conveys a general atmosphere of sadness and moodiness, with the dial set to 'tragic' or 'lamentable' far more often than on I'm Still In Love With You — and don't we usually regard tragedy as the high genre, a priori set to exploring the innermost depths of one's soul? The very opening is telling — sad, sad, sad swoops from the strings and even the horns; those same horns that, in an Al Green tune, usually announce joy, but here morosely pronounce separation. And the echoey female backup vocals — 'call me', 'call me', 'call me', like a Eurydice might have been calling out to Orpheus from under the ground, if classical metaphors are allowed. A masterpiece of a song, but certainly not the proper tune to make out to, at least if you're even a little bit superstitious.
Only a couple songs sound more upbeat and R'n'B-ish, like 'Stand Up' or 'Here I Am', but in my mind they actually sound more timid than Green's first full-blown entry in the gospel genre, the almost six-minute sermon of 'Jesus Is Waiting'. Sermon, not song — there is a basic vocal theme here, but it does not matter one iota next to the amazing web of vocal overdubs that Green uses to draw you closer to his religious conscience. As goes with all of great gospel, though, you don't have to be a zealous Christian to appreciate it — for all I know, you could be a militant atheist. I'm an agnostic, but even I can't resist his 'thank you... thank you... thank you', or 'help me... help me... help me...', or especially 'you been good to me... you been good to me...'. Like all best sermons, this works well on the subconscious level, and it makes me feel good and inspired without making me yearn to be baptized.
It does go without saying that this is a highest quality Al Green record with enough soul to warm the heart and enough inventiveness to soothe the brain, so a thumbs up is guaranteed from both directions. As for the issue of "all-time best", I don't think Al himself ever gave a damn about it, and I don't do, either.