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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bob Marley: Exodus

BOB MARLEY: EXODUS (1977)

1) Natural Mystic; 2) So Much Things To Say; 3) Guiltiness; 4) The Heathen; 5) Exodus; 6) Jamming; 7) Waiting In Vain; 8) Turn Your Lights Down Low; 9) Three Little Birds; 10) One Love / People Get Ready; 11*) Roots.

I am pretty sure that this album would have been impossible without Marley's brush-with-death experience in late 1976. With a miraculous escape like that, you start thinking, quite naturally, of all the things you have not yet completed in your life — you get an incentive to accelerate, to realize your grandest ambitions, no matter how much energy and spirit it costs you. So, perhaps Exodus is not necessarily the best Marley album lying around, as critical ratings often evaluate it (and it is even more absurd to call it «the best reggae album ever», because Exodus honestly does not give a damn about what musical style it was accidentally cast in). But it is quite clearly the «biggest» Bob Marley album, in scope and in execution; there is no use denying that the man set himself pretty high marks here, and there is no need to insist that he did not manage to hit most of them as best he could.

Exodus means Moses, and it is this album that turned Bob Marley into a modern-day Moses indeed: particularly the first side, all of which is structured like a multi-part sermon from the most esoteric depths of the Old Testament. "There's a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear / This could be the first trumpet / Might as well be the last". The musical backing is nothing particularly special — sparingly minimalistic, but with a neces­sarily ominous ring to the bass, and most of the overdubs (guitar, occasional brass) have been pushed way back into the mix: this helps generate the impression that the man is somewhere over there (on Mount Sinai, perhaps, receiving the latest instructions from Jah), letting you, the listener, in on his serious conversation — and the rest of the crowds are someplace down there. Waiting for the trumpets and all.

Although the first four songs are all good, in reality they all sound like honest-to-God dress re­hearsals for the title track. At 7:40, it is the longest track so far on a Wailers album, and its epic length is not accidental: most of the actual musical secrets of the groove are disclosed within the first minute already, but, like all great grooves, it is supposed to put you in a state of trance that you'd wish could last forever. The combination of stinging wah-wah guitar, that ominous bass, and the funky brass section that almost seems temporarily loaned from Sly & The Family Stone is quite worthy in itself, but it is the vocal shamanizing that pushes the whole thing over the top. Did Bob Marley truly believe that, like Moses, he could rally the people around him, leading them out of «Babylon»? (Should be «Egypt», of course, but it's all the same to them Rastas any­way). Even if he was naïve enough to believe that, the ensuing idealism, bottled in this track, still suffices to give you a spiritual jolt — maybe not strong enough to set you on the proper path of demolishing Babylon, but enough to make you go out and feed a homeless kitten or something.

The song is not even properly a «reggae» song, more like a reggaeified funk vamp, full of grim determination that is as far removed from the usually more relaxed atmosphere of reggae as pos­sible. There is one motto throughout — "move! move! move! move!" — echoing around the room like a retranslation of Jah's own command, and you can just feel that crazy, but disciplined drive urging and urging you on. The heat that is generated by the moment is on a James Brown level, but James Brown, even at his very best, was an entertainer, not a prophet, and his trance inductions could only be called «religious» figuratively, whereas ʽExodusʼ is indeed a religious musical ritual that even Moses himself could appreciate. Easily the most single powerful track of 1977, a year that was fairly ripe on powerful tracks — but no anthem from the punk or New Wave crowds could pack that much depth.

The second side of the album intentionally brings the level of tension down: not only are there some tender love songs, but even the political ones, like ʽOne Loveʼ, are delivered in a more lyrical and friendly key. There is ʽJammingʼ, which has always seemed like a fairly tame and unimpressive little ditty next to ʽExodusʼ to me — go figure why it has become so insanely popu­lar, but I guess that the majority of the population can't take it as heavy as ʽExodusʼ, and needs something lighter and catchier for their personal freedom anthem. If anything, I like ʽThree Little Birdsʼ with its nagging little keyboard riff, more than ʽJammingʼ, maybe because it is so simple and childish in every aspect of its execution that it comes out as more adequate — a simple love message for a simple song. Then again, it really makes no sense to compare.

Some people complain that Exodus is too glossy — that they like their Wailers «raw», not pre­pared carefully in the studio according to some particular technological recipe. I do not buy this accusation, and neither should anybody: by 1977, Bob Marley was anything but committed to the formulaic demands of «hardcore reggae», yet at the same time he had lost none of the fiery spirit of old — if anything, that attempt on his life only rejuvenated that spirit — and if Exodus sounds overproduced to you, well, so does Pink Floyd, and we have never found that aspect of their sound to be a problem. On the other hand, the «gloss» and all the extra overdubs really help to overcome the sometimes uncomfortable simplicity of the basic groove and push the songs to­wards masterpiece status on the strength of their atmosphere.

Listen, for instance, to ʽThe Heathenʼ and to whatever Julian Jr. Marvin, the band's new lead guitarist, is doing out there in the background, sometimes sending out small, compact thunder­balls of distortion and sometimes letting go with killer screeching blues-rock leads, and how Tyrone Downie begins his part with simplistic three-note synth phrases and then gradually buries himself in some real crazy jazz-fusion stuff. Or how Julian adds some lovely country guitar licks to ʽTurn Your Lights Down Lowʼ, a song that brings Marley dangerously close to «adult contem­porary» (or, at least, some really boring 1970s R&B) but keeps its distance because of the devotion of the nuances of the indivudual players. That may all be «gloss», but unless I am in some very special mood, I will take that gloss over Lee ʽScratchʼ Perry's minimalism any regular time of day. Deep bass groove, after all, is not the only possible way to worship Jah.

In all possible respects, Exodus is an outstanding record that goes way beyond the basic values of reggae as a musical genre and/or of Rastafarianism as a religious ideology. It is a triumph of in­spiration and active drive, a certain spiritual push-up that Marley would not be able to replicate ever again (in fact, and perhaps to his honor, he did not even try). Not the best place to come looking for hooks — Catch A Fire or Natty Dread would be more obvious choices; not the best place to understand what the hell is «reggae» supposed to mean (since, even technically, about half of this album is not really reggae); but just a great place, no doubt about it, if you're looking for a little outside aid to charge up your batteries. Exodus, movement of Jah people, the works. Major thumbs up guaranteed.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I agree about "Turn Your Lights Down Low" coming dangerously close to adult contemporary... really one of the few Marley songs I don't care for. The one-two punch of Guiltiness and Heathen kill me (I think that's a guitar synth, but whatever it is it sounds amazing) and Waiting in Vain is possibly his most beautiful moment. Screw critical ratings, it's just a really great record.

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