AL GREEN: AL GREEN IS LOVE (1975)
1) L-O-V-E (Love); 2) Rhymes; 3) The Love Sermon; 4) There Is Love; 5) Could I Be The One; 6) Love Ritual; 7) I Didn't Know; 8) Oh Me, Oh My (Dreams In My Arms); 9) I Gotta Be More (Take Me Higher); 10) I Wish You Were Here.
This isn't a bad album, but its message is forcefully overstated — just look at all the song titles. Besides, it's not like Al is letting us in on something we haven't been previously aware of. In reality, this may simply be a sign that the king (of Love) is faltering, and that this nothing more than a desperate gimmick to reassert his failing position. When the Rolling Stones, on their 1969 tour, billed themselves 'The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band In The World' whenever they went, audiences weren't really too sure of this prior to the show, meaning that the gesture was arrogant, but masterfully provocative. When Al Green, in 1975, claims that he "is Love", though, he is reminding this to people who were already quite positively certain of the fact since 1972 at the latest, and when exactly is it that you have to remind people of the obvious? That's right — when the obvious is either no longer obvious or, on the contrary, is so obvious it has become boring and forgettable. So, not a good sign.
There is exactly one song on Al Green Is Love that constitutes forward movement: the near-instrumental 'Love Ritual' —a musical representation of said ritual through the art of funky jamming. It is pretty decent as far as proto-disco jamming goes, but, evidently, it cannot be anything but an oddity in Green's catalog, because who the hell wants to listen to Al Green not singing? Its presence on the album is only justified within a larger context, since Al clearly designed the record as a semi-conceptual one, defining and describing the power of love in multiple ways, including even one way that does not involve his trademark vocals, except for a few woo-woos and hoola-hoolas.
The rest is basically just Explores Your Mind Vol. 2: respectable dance grooves graced with catchy vocal hooks, interchangeable but, as usual, all ranging from pretty to gorgeous. 'L-O-V-E' and 'Oh Me, Oh My' are probably the high points of the 'tighter' sector, especially the former, which is one of Al's most straightforward anthems, completely devoid of subtlety or ambivalence — but, of course, one cannot and should not always be ambivalent; there's always a time and place for letting yourself go, and few people can do it more gracefully than Al.
However, the further we progress, the more he seems to be slipping. The slower ballads aren't that captivating any more, maybe because he cannot think of any new ways to seduce us, and who wants to always be seduced in the very same way? that'd be missing the very point of seduction. The hugest misstep is on 'I Didn't Know', whose eight-minute length would indicate a soft R'n'B jam showered with inventive vocalization, like 'Jesus Is Waiting' or 'Beware', but instead it's just one more slow ballad with a relatively generic performance, and it functions as okay background music to make out to, but the greatness of Al was that, even if his previous output could always be technically defined as 'background music to make out to', it always went beyond that — 'I Didn't Know', on the other hand, belongs in a decent-quality softcore flick, never to be judged as containing some sort of value that trumps this level.
On shorter songs, hooks take more time to sink in — I still haven't been able to buy into the magic of 'Could I Be The One' or 'The Love Sermon', and only a super-effort on 'I Wish You Were Here', where Al really pulls all the stops with his falsetto, effectively grants a memorable and moving ending to the record and thus, a general favorable impression, with the best dance number opening it and the best ballad closing it.
It's interesting that the record scarcely ever bears the imprint of Al's great tragedy of the preceding year, when his then-current lover Mary Woodson scalded him with boiling grits and then committed suicide — an incident which, as it is often claimed, moved him one big step closer to fully converting to religious activities. Nor would I try to insinuate that his third-degree burns resulted in this slight drop of musical quality, a drop that was probably inevitable — you can't go on making great music forever, not if you lock oneself in one particular style. It does, however, seem reasonable to think that, the more messed up he became in personal life, the more idyllic he would be shaping his musical landscapes, which were his Wonderland refuge from the troubles of everyday existence. But there's only so far you can go with idyllic settings, and on Al Green Is Love, there is simply too much honey and not enough meat to balance the diet. Thumbs up anyway — there are no serious accusations I could have against the record — but if there ever was such a thing as a "beginning of the end" for Green, this was it. Or maybe it was the boiling grits.