AL GREEN: AL GREEN EXPLORES YOUR MIND (1974)
Explores Your Mind? More like Explores Your Body! Keeping up with the times, Al and producer Willie Mitchell steer the ship in a more shallow direction, ending up with the first Al Green album in a long time that might be more suitable for club audiences than late night make-outs. The tempos are driven up, the strings swoop in precise funky grooves, Al introduces more catchy vocal choruses, and much of this borders on proto-disco.
Is it bad? Who knows? After all, it is quite slippery to try and accuse Al Green of "selling out"; his creed, from the very start to the very end, has always been Spirituality, Sentimentality, and Commerciality (or, if one wants to use a less derogatory term, Accessibility). So, Al Green Explores Your Mind may abuse the latter part, but it does so without sacrificing either Spirituality or Sentimentality — and, if anything, he is now even closer to merging the two, e. g. on 'God Blessed Our Love', the slowest and most gospel-oriented song on the album. Nothing can be more exciting than bringing together God and the lady you love, right?
But, of course, it can be relatively unsettling to learn that the big hit, this time around, bears the title of 'Sha-La-La'. It's not the Manfred Mann level of (anti-)intelligence, of course, yet there is decidedly less subtlety to this little album-opening hymn than to 'Call Me' or even 'Let's Get Married', and you can feel that decidedly less work went into it, as well. So history was right to decide that the true song number one on the album is Al's original version of 'Take Me To The River', not fully appreciated by either black or white audiences until its popularization by Talking Heads several years later.
With the Heads, it was put by David Byrne through his well-oiled paranoia machine, but also lost the lyrical relevance — David Byrne isn't well-known for being (and could have never even tried on the guise of) a tortured lover, whereas for Al it's the primary occupation, and his use of a Christian metaphor — 'take me to the river, wash me down' — to reflect the yearning for getting rid of a love he doesn't feel right about is right on target. Once again, here's this idea of a supernatural fear outbalancing temptation, and it is perhaps no accident that 'God Blessed Our Love' is the very next track: in order to overcome this fear, Al has to make sure that this is not a demonic temptation, but rather a holy feeling validated by his superior. It's only natural, though, that 'Take Me To The River' is the masterpiece, and 'God Blessed Our Love' the trifling footnote.
None of the other songs have an intrigue as deep-cutting as 'Take Me To The River', but both the ballads and the dance grooves are uniformly tasteful, and one has to seriously, seriously commend the strings and horns arrangements: for instance, the first fifteen seconds of 'One Night Stand', with the two waves of these sounds meeting each other, are quite a glorious fifteen seconds, and the clever use of the harp on 'Hangin' On' is a refreshing novelty. So let it be well understood that, even though the emphasis is on Entertainment, this is still first-class Entertainment and still one of the best soul/R'n'B albums of the year. And even though it begins with the feather-light 'Sha-La-La', it still ends with the pensive, introspective finale of 'School Days' — Al sweetly and gracefully reminiscing about his early days of romance. Or maybe reminiscing about your early days of romance? After all, it's Al Green Explores Your Mind, not His Mind. But a big thumbs up from the heart regardless of the answer, and a slightly lesser one from the mind, which still cannot completely shake off the not so pleasant feeling of being "explored" with the likes of 'Sha-La-La'.