AL GREEN: DON'T LOOK BACK (1993)
1) Best Love; 2) Love Is A Beautiful Thing; 3) Waiting On You; 4) What Does It Take; 5) Keep On Pushing Love; 6) You Are My Everything; 7) One Love; 8) People In The World; 9) Give It Everything; 10) Your Love; 11) Fountain Of Love; 12) Don't Look Back; 13) Love In Motion.
[Technically, this belongs in between the reviews for Tokyo... Live! and I Can't Stop, but I have only recently acquired the album, which is why it would seem to be in the wrong place in the context of this blog.]
It only goes to show how much Al Green has derailed his critical audience with his abandoning the «secular» style — nobody takes good care of the man's official discographies any more. In the info section of Wikipedia, for instance, Don't Look Back (1993) is listed as the man's last «gospel album», whereas Your Heart's In Good Hands (1995) is listed as his first «later secular album». Accordingly, Your Heart's In Good Hands is an album that has been discussed and reviewed in quite a few sources, while Don't Look Back, at most, gets a brief mention and a title list, without any substantial discussion whatsoever.
What is bizarre about this situation is that even a brief glance at the track listings shows that Don't Look Back and Your Heart's In Good Hands are, in fact, almost the exact same album, except that Don't Look Back, which was from the very start released in CD format, runs longer, and Your Heart's In Good Hands has just one track that was not present on Don't Look Back — the title track, released as a single. However, since that title track was written by Diane Warren, this gives me a legitimate excuse to forget about the existence of that album in the first place. Consequently, Al's «proper» comeback, one that somehow remained unnoticed by the critical society, is the 13-track Don't Look Back from 1993 — his first record in a decade and a half to consist throughout of «secular soul» material. Most likely, the confusion is due to the fact that the album was only released in Europe — and, as everybody knows, nothing released exclusively in Europe really counts in the US-centric universe.
The album owes much of its flavor to Al's collaboration with David Steele, former bass player in The Beat and Fine Young Cannibals — about a half of the songs are co-credited to Green and Steele, while the others are covers of contemporary (ʽLove Is A Beautiful Thingʼ) or old (title track, originally a big hit for The Temptations) R&B material. People have occasionally complained about the production of the album, but I do not see any serious difficulties: the producer here was Arthur Baker, a seasoned pro who'd previously worked with Afrika Bambaataa and New Order, and the worst accusation I could haul out against him is that too many drum parts are programmed rather than live — but far from all, and even those that are do not flaunt their electronic gloss in any sort of ugly, arrogant manner. On the whole, I could not say that Baker's production is that much worse than Willie Mitchell's production on Al's subsequent releases: it's just that everybody went so crazy over the very idea of a Green/Mitchell reunion that they failed to notice that their chemistry no longer guaranteed immediate success.
Anyway, Don't Look Back sets the general tone for Al's two next albums — a collection of steady, honest soul grooves, most of which are tastefully enjoyable but feel sorta flat. Years of self-humiliating, individuality-effacing work for the Lord had paid off: the subtlety, vulnerability, sinfulness, inner torture, and occasional strive for redemption, all that dense psychological soup that made Green's soul classics so outstanding on a cruelly competitive market, no longer exist. Instead, song after song is simply dedicated to praising Love on a general level, which makes me happy for Al — clearly, such an album could only have come from somebody who had succeeded in finding internal peace — but rather quickly bored with the album in general. This is what happens, I guess, when you have finally exorcised your demon and are left alone with the angel. Beauty, elegance, predictability, and boredom.
Which is a pity, because individually, some of the grooves are quite solid. ʽLove Is A Beautiful Thingʼ, for instance, has a tasty stereo mix of several overdubbed funky guitars capped with a catchy chorus ("soul to soul, fire to fire...") — the only problem being is that I know not what else to say about it. ʽWaiting On Youʼ might have even better guitar work — two more funky guitars engaged in a productive dialog (pentalog, actually, if you throw in organ, piano, and brass overdubs: the mix is dense, but the production is so good that each instrument speaks with its own distinct voice). Then ʽWhat Does It Takeʼ takes over with...
...okay, I have little choice but to repeat the same unnecessary descriptions. Truth is, most songs here sound exactly the same. Funky guitars, brass, keyboards, backup vocals, repetitive codas, the works. For a 1993 album, everything sounds absolutely great and delicious — in an era when the word «R&B» was already heavily associated with the idea of technically challenging vocal gymnastics over robotic pseudo-musical backgrounds, Don't Look Back redeems the genre with an old school vengeance. And from a strict, pedantic musical standpoint, I would even think that Don't Look Back is superior to the next two Mitchell-produced albums — I find the arrangements a bit more creative. But the overall problem is the same: most, if not all, of the songs are interchangeable, and their overall mood does not do perfect justice to the capabilities of Al's voice, which has not at all been ravaged by time, but is simply not offered the right material to shine in all its glory. On the other hand — if you are simply looking for a lot of love, Al's got a lot of love saved up from his fifteen years of ministering, and it's all spilled here. I mean, when 7 out of 13 songs have the word «love» in the title, that's gotta be a lot of love, right?..