BOOKER T. & THE M.G's: UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE (1977)
1) Sticky Stuff; 2) Grab Bag; 3) Space Nuts; 4) Love Wheels; 5) Moto Cross; 6) Last Tango In Memphis; 7) M.G.'s Salsa; 8) Tie Stick; 9) Reincarnation.
As is known all too well, the death of your drummer is a bad, bad omen. Led Zeppelin understood that and wisely disbanded; the Who did not, and spent four years wallowing in mysery and degradation. Booker T. & the M.G.'s, however, preceded both of them, and they probably believed that, since they were not in the big leagues anyway, they could try it out safely. So, in the place of brutally murdered Al Jackson Jr., they hired Willie Hall, who formerly played with The Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes, and ploughed ahead.
There were other big changes, too. First, a new label: Asylum Records, the first brainchild of David Geffen, notorious for offering a brief «asylum» from Columbia to Bob Dylan in 1974-75 and now providing the same for this bunch of Stax survivors. Second and more important, a new style: with Afro-American entertainment music now shifting almost completely to funk and disco, it was only natural that the M.G.'s, too, would have their own funk/disco album. After all, they showed the world that they could easily make the switch and tame those wild funky rhythms back in 1971, on Melting Pot — what could stop them from traveling further down that track?
Alas, Universal Language falls in the same trap as so many other albums by Sixties acts who tried to embrace the shifting production values, playing styles, and atmospheric ideologies of the Seventies. Word of the day is «smooth» — tightly disciplined and strictly repetitive guitars, «cosmic» electronic keyboards painting pictures of seductive, but somewhat soulless technological future, and formulaic dance grooves that are not allowed to experiment with rhythm because, you know, who wants to be unexpectedly thrown off rhythm on the dance pad? The best performers of the day could compensate for this tight harness with wildness, sleaziness, or pop hooks, but Booker T. & The M.G.'s were never wild, always tended to avoid coming across as sleazy, and as for pop hooks — well, that could happen, but it was never a priority.
So, somewhat predictably, Universal Language ends up sounding professional, but dull and quite pointless — as a serious musical offering, it hardly adds anything to these guys' legend, and as entertainment, it is nowhere near as «hot» as, say, Chic, or many more of the new competitors. ʽSticky Stuffʼ opens the album with a nice cool groove, but it soon becomes obvious that the guys are not very much into it, or if they are, the point is not to let us know: everything is tight, but nothing ever gets out of hand. Total lack of passion, just professionalism — and the same verdict applies to each of the remaining eight tracks.
The record has its fair share of decent keyboard work from Booker, especially later on: there is a graceful, pensive, nostalgic organ solo on ʽLast Tango In Memphisʼ, an uplifting uptempo solo in ʽM.G.'s Salsaʼ, and a cocky, whistle-away-your-blues part on the closing ʽReincarnationʼ, which is probably the braggiest tune about reincarnation ever recorded. But even with these, it takes a long (and unnecessary) time to suck them in, because everything is so restrained and «under wraps» of the thoroughly unremarkable production.
All in all, just another passable experience. Actually, as far as real «disco» is concerned, there ain't too much of it here — not a single instance of a «proper» disco bassline detected — but that is hardly a consolation, because I'd rather take «hot» disco over «cool» funk and fusion like this. It is true that Booker T. & the M.G.'s had always thrived on restraint and cool-calm-collected discipline, but with Universal Language, this just translates into Dull-o-rama-a-plenty, and it is hardly a wonder that neither ʽSticky Stuffʼ as the lead single nor the album as a whole were noticed by anybody. Upon which, the M.G.'s did the wisest thing they could do — and split once again, with Cropper, Dunn, and White eventually offering their services to The Blues Brothers. And I'd probably take the kitsch of the Blues Brothers over the mind-numbing seriousness of this Universal Language any time of day. What sort of title is that for an album like this, anyway? Since when has limp, pedestrian funk like this represented «universal language»? ʽHotel Californiaʼ — now that's «universal language» for you in 1977. Thumbs down.