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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bob Marley: Survival


1) So Much Trouble In The World; 2) Zimbabwe; 3) Top Rankin'; 4) Babylon System; 5) Survival; 6) Africa Unite; 7) One Drop; 8) Ride Natty Ride; 9) Ambush In The Night; 10) Wake Up And Live.

Kaya was a very smart follow-up to Exodus — a spiritual detour showcasing «the other side of Bob Marley» — but as internal and external pressure on Bob's spirit to return to full-scale prophet mode increased, a «proper» follow-up to Exodus, one that would push the rebellious, militant spirit of The Wailers even further, was inevitable, and Survival is all about the message — an honest, noble, progressive, if sometimes a bit naïve or even misguided, message, but one that, unfortunately, works against the music: this is the first Marley album that I would have to dub «generally unsatisfactory» — mildly speaking.

The best thing that can be said about the music is that the songs are still catchy. And they should be: a set of powerful political anthems should have quickly gripping, easily sing-alongable cho­ruses that seem to come so easily for Bob at all times. The fervor and charisma are still there, whether Bob is crying out his soul at how there's "so much trouble in the world", or grimly stating that "we're the survivors, yeah the Black survivors", or calling on Africa to unite, or urging us all to "wake up and live, y'all!" (a bit creepy, considering his own beginning battle with cancer at the time). However, the balance is just not right — there's too much fervor and charisma this time, not enough sheer musical power.

Honestly, I do not care all that much about Bob Marley as a prophet. His idealistic vision of Africa as a potential spiritual paradise where people can break free from their chains and show the world the one true way is endearing, but desperately naïve — «uniting» is by far the last thing on the minds of the majority of Africans, too busy with much harsher problems, and, while in 1979 it might have seemed progressive, today the ode to the glorious liberation of Zimbabwe, in the light of what has happened in that country ever since, sounds totally ridiculous. That said, even the most ridiculous plight, or creed, or ideology can be pardoned and lived with if it is ex­pressed in the form of genius — and on previous records, the Wailers were not only prophets, but also serious musical innovators and «groove-masters». Had something like ʽExodusʼ (the song) lyrically been an ode to Robert Mugabe, it would not have (seriously) influenced my admiration for the power of the recording.

But compare ʽExodusʼ (the song) with ʽSurvivalʼ (the song), and you will probably see how the power level suddenly has dropped down — ironically, the more politicized the message gets, the less energy and passion there is in the playing. ʽSurvivalʼ is a not-too-bad groove in itself, but it lacks the sharp funky horns, the tense harmonies, the mystical echoey production, the "Move! Move!" bits that drive you to action, basically, all the flourishes that made ʽExodusʼ such a sym­phonic experience. At the same time, ʽSurvivalʼ is not an exercise in stark minimalism, either: it has a fairly standard arrangement, with a bit of everything thrown in (keyboards, horns, harmo­nies), but nothing in particular standing out.

I do not think even a single one of these songs has managed to attain truly «classic» status, even though not a single one of them is truly «bad» (except for some of the lyrics) and the album is pretty even, and goes down very easy. There's nothing wrong, in fact, about singing along to these choruses, but I only wish that a song called ʽWake Up And Liveʼ would really make me want to wake up and live — this one, instead, with its completely static, unyielding groove, puts me into a somnambulant trance. (A great idea would be to transform it into a zombie anthem soundtrack in the next instalment of Night Of The Living Dead or something).

Political blunder of the day: ʽAfrica Uniteʼ is a kind slogan all right, but was Bob really so naïve as to think that the majority of Africans would be inspired by a unification anthem with lines like "we are the children of the Rastaman"? Most likely, they'd simply think that sly old Bob is pushing for a pro-Ethiopian agenda here — Africa united under the bening rule of the followers of Haile Selassie. What works for Addis Ababa might not necessarily work for Kinshasa, you know. Real noble utopian sentiment, though.


  1. This is why I keep coming back to music review and discussion forums like this one: the wide spectrum of opinions. I rate this one really highly and I happen to think this one has strong hooks all over the place. As I live in South Africa, I too find some of the lyrics hopelessly naive ("Africa Unite" being the prime suspect like you pointed out), but fortunately they enhance the music rather than detract from it in my opinion.

    I was actually hoping you might comment specifically on "So Much Trouble In The World", as I recall that it was missing on the version you reviewed all those years back on the old site. It is my favourite Marley song by far and I was wondering if - now that you have heard it in it's pride of place opening the album - you found it to have any particular merits at all?

  2. "was Bob really so naïve as to think ....."
    To answer that one we should understand Jamaica at the end of the 70's. I don't really, so I won't try. But it always has struck me how rastafarianism was a form of escapism. So if Bob Marley sings about Africa he sings about an idealized Africa, not the actual political Africa at the end of the 70's. See, 1979 was also the year of Idi Amin getting kicked out. At one hand that showed that black people could be as much an obstacle on the road to the spiritual paradise as white colonists. At the other hand this event was a sign of hope. But above all it was well known at least in Europe that Haile Selassie's Ethiopia wasn't exactly a paradise either. He had zero respect for human rights.