BOB MARLEY: KAYA (1978)
1) Easy Skanking; 2) Kaya; 3) Is This Love; 4) Sun Is Shining; 5) Satisfy My Soul; 6) She's Gone; 7) Misty Morning; 8) Crisis; 9) Running Away; 10) Time Will Tell.
Look no further than Kaya for a good argument why records may mean different things when taken on their own and when taken in context. The level on which Kaya works best is the level of contrast with Exodus — the Wailers' most bombastic, exuberant, quasi-messianic statement to date quickly followed up by Marley at his most peaceful and mellow, with nary a single song carrying a sharp political message (with the possible exception of ʽCrisisʼ and ʽTime Will Tellʼ) and most of them simply inviting you to quiet down, relax, share a joint, and strive for inner peace rather than actively pursue the issue of human rights. Well, let's face it, even Moses could have hardly endured forty years in the desert without taking a well-deserved break every now and then.
Not only that, but Bob even falls back upon the idea of digging into his past, resuscitating at least two oldies here (the title track and ʽSun Is Shiningʼ), as if he were a bit lazy to come up with a whole album of original tunes — on the other hand, the arrangements are completely different now, so this is not so much laziness as nostalgia, a throwback to the good old days when the Wailers were quite far from embarking on a world-level mission, and were fully content to enjoy the bare necessities and complain in allegory, or, at least, in a hushed voice.
Many people dislike the new arrangements, implying, once again, that the «raw» originals work better. They do have a point — when we compare the original melody of ʽKayaʼ, carried by bass vocal harmonies, with its new incarnation, where the human voice is replaced with a not-too-empathetic synthesizer tone, it must be hard on one's conscience to take a stand near the synthesizer rather than the original Wailers. But somehow, when this new production gloss is being sanctioned by Bob himself, and when his vocal delivery on the new version is just as life-asserting and uplifting as it used to be, I can easily disregard the lack of rawness, and enjoy Bob in all of his hi-fi rather than lo-fi glory. As for ʽSun Is Shiningʼ, it is given almost three extra minutes to let the groove soak in deeper, and give Junior Marvin enough space to seduce us with his nerve-tingling bluesy licks (many of which he probably lifted from Clapton, but who's complaining?).
As is now usual with Bob, there are no bad songs on the album — repetitive, obsessive vocal hooks are all over the place, Kaya really being a fine pop record, thinly masked as another exercise in reggae grooving. ʽIs This Love?ʼ asks the obvious question in the same way in which a melodic, sensitive, romantic Californian singer-songwriter would have asked the same thing. ʽShe's Goneʼ actually has elements of crooning to it — yes, putting a traditional melodic spin on that vocal delivery bit. And on ʽRunning Awayʼ, the singing duties are largely relegated to back vocalists, while Bob moves amusingly close to scat singing, and the entire arrangement pays serious tribute to lite-jazz entertainment.
None of these songs really sweep you off your feet, but together, they combine into a very pretty, very pleasant relaxation package — this is not Bob Marley «losing steam», this is Bob Marley turning down the temperature a bit, wooing you over with his sentimental side, and it goes without saying that he is doing a much better job about it than the average professional crooner with his predictable pathos. However, as I already said, context is key: a whole string of Kaya-like records, had this turned into a mission to cross reggae grooves with sweet sentimentality, would have quickly become routine and unbearable. As it is, this particular dish is really best served after the inspirational, hyper-stimulating main course of Exodus, a sweet, refreshing lull after the big storm, and it is mainly in this context that I give it a certified thumbs up.
P.S. And, just for the record, if you can find a sweeter, more emotionally calming way to sing the line "think you're in heaven but you're really in hell" (ʽTime Will Tellʼ) without losing the seriousness of this message, let me know. Kaya places its bet to win — even the harshest truths on this record are unequivocally delivered in the soothing-est of possible tones.