BOB MARLEY: NATTY DREAD (1974)
1) Lively Up Yourself; 2) No Woman, No Cry; 3) Them Belly Full (But We Hungry); 4) Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock); 5) So Jah Say; 6) Natty Dread; 7) Bend Down Low; 8) Talkin' Blues; 9) Revolution; 10*) Am-A-Do.
And so Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer split off, and the band becomes «Bob Marley and The Wailers» — forever splitting the fans, too, as some hardcore veterans accused Marley of exercising too much of his «I», while others pointed out that this was simply a wise move that helped spread the word of Jah far wider into the world than could have ever been foreseen. Who knows who's right and who's wrong? In the end, all we should care about is the music.
Naturally, Natty Dread is completely different from everything that came before it. While reggae rhythms are still its foundation, there is a whole lot of other stuff here — catchy pop choruses, pleasant female backing harmonies, complicated brass overdubs, relatively loud guitar solos from the band's newest member Al Anderson, in short, a whole lot of stuff to take your attention away from the bare groove and draw it to the same elements that, in 1974, you'd be attracted to on various «rock» albums. But the recompense is that almost each and every song here has its own separate face — try and accuse this record of being monotonous; you might just as well apply the same accusation to The White Album.
Interesting enough, only two songs on the album are credited to Bob himself, of which at least one (ʽBend Down Lowʼ) is a playful bit of filler, catchy in a nursery-rhyme way (its main opening theme is somewhat of a cross between Mother Goose and ʽLet It Beʼ), but nothing more. The other one does set a good tone for the rest of the album — ʽLively Up Yourselfʼ opens the proceedings on a «lively», jumpy note, while at the same time being driven by a slightly scary bassline: once the brass section starts doubling the bass, the atmosphere becomes downright threatening, or, at least, solemn to the point that the recommendation to lively up yourself becomes a stern order. "You rock so, you rock so" — yes sir, whatever you say sir.
There are all sorts of speculations as to whether «Vincent Ford», a little-known Jamaican personage, actually wrote ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ or if that was just an act of generosity on Bob's part, giving away a song to the needy (although, in retrospect, it wouldn't become all that famous until next year's Live! version). Its popular appeal is easily crackable — where Marley's lyrics are often obscure to those not well versed in Jamaican cultural or linguistic realities, everybody, including non-English speakers, easily understands what "no woman no cry" and "everything's gonna be alright" is supposed to mean. But singling it out from the rest of the album would be absurd — as good as that organ melody is, its overall emotional power is neither weaker nor stronger than the power of the more overtly political material here.
At the very least, the Barrett brothers and Rita Marley show that they can be every bit as cool at songwriting as Mr. I-And-I himself. My personal favorite on the album is actually Rita's ʽSo Jah Sayʼ, a song whose stern bass and Mount-Sinaic brass simply breathe the Old Testament down our backs — every time I hear that introduction, it makes me want to prostrate myself before His Presence, whoever He might be (the Great God of the Left Speaker, or was it the Right one?). On that one, genre considerations simply melt away, and you are no longer aware of what you are listening to — reggae? R&B? soul? gospel? Essentially, it is the genre of «solemn musical prophecy». You can shake your body to these sounds, sure, but it will be a shamanistic kind of shaking, not just a fun dance kind of thing.
Another good one is Aston Barrett's ʽRebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)ʼ, a lengthy song that knows how to gain in intensity by rising the pitch on every next chorus of "aaaaaaaaah, rebel music!", reaching new levels of desperation while the harmonica blasts add a «swampy» atmosphere to the proceedings. Better than most songs on here, it manages to convey the impression of a world where danger might be around every corner, and where people's brief moments of happiness are constantly interspersed with a «watch-your-back» sense of vigilance. Every now and then, we are told to "forget your troubles and dance" (ʽThem Belly Fullʼ), and we do, but "I've been down on the rock for so long / I seem to wear a permanent screw" (ʽTalkin' Bluesʼ).
This idea of a «permanent screw» is actually important in that Natty Dread, even despite taking good care of its individual components, still works better as a whole entity. Now that Bob has the full weight of the band on his shoulders, as well as the responsibility to bring The Message to every new-fangled fan of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, he has to uphold a thematic unity and maintain a serious tone throughout the album on a whole new level, and he totally rises to the occasion: other than ʽBend Down Lowʼ, each song is tied to the ones around it with one uniting idea — end the suffering. Other than the man's conviction that Heaven can be found on Earth, the rest is so totally in line with early Christianity that sooner or later, you'll figuratively begin looking for figurative traces of stigmata on the man's figurative hands. Is that emotional manipulation? If it is, it's one of the highest order — bring it on, I like to be manipulated that way, even if there's no chance convincing me of the Second Advent where I have enough trouble with the First already.
Anyway, a great record whose total is so much more than its parts. One can only wonder what it would have sounded like if Tosh and Bunny decided not to split — but something tells me they would have objected against all the colorful overdubs, and I cannot imagine these songs without Al's weeping-and-wailing lead guitar, or without those brass parts that add a symphonic component. So, cutting it short, just put your hardcore worries behind your hardcore back, all you great lovers of Lee ʽNothing But Scratchʼ Perry, and join Mr. Marley on his last and grandest ride through the mid- and late Seventies as reggae's, Jamaica's, Haile Selassie's, and all the oppressed and suffering people's messenger to the world. Thumbs up.