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Monday, April 2, 2018

Marvin Gaye: M.P.G.

MARVIN GAYE: M.P.G. (1969)

1) Too Busy Thinking About You; 2) This Magic Moment; 3) That's The Way Love Is; 4) The End Of Our Road; 5) Seek And You Shall Find; 6) Memories; 7) Only A Lonely Man Would Know; 8) It's A Bitter Pill To Swallow; 9) More Than A Heart Can Stand; 10) Try My True Love; 11) I Got To Get To California; 12) It Don't Take Much To Keep Me.

General verdict: Way too much recycling here — a well-meant, diligently executed slump.

Although it is hard to find a single stretch in the life of Marvin where he would find himself perfectly content with life, the general consensus is that 1969-1970 was a particularly tough period, with the man torn between his career problems (the «Motown grip» stiffening more than ever, now that he was their biggest selling star) and his woman problems — deteriorating family life with wife Anna Gordy and rapidly deteriorating health of «little sister» Tammi. In cynical practice, this kind of trouble often translates to great art, but certain other conditions have to be met for that — creative freedom, for instance, which was not on the list of Motown's priorities for Marvin and for which he was not yet able to struggle in 1969.

M.P.G., thusly named after Marvin's initials, reflects all these things nicely: listen to it carefully and all that pain and torment will get across to you — yet the songs are still too carefully crafted in accordance with the regular Motown formula to act as fully credible vehicles for Marvin's emotional state. Case in point: ʽThat's The Way Love Isʼ, a friendly warning to a broken-hearted lover from the Whitfield/Strong team, originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. Marvin's "I've been hurt by love so many times..." must have singed him real hard when he delivered it in the studio, and all of the song's components strive hard to brew up a psychotic atmosphere — gritty bass line, dark-cloudy strings, tribal percussion, grimy organ... then, of course, you realize that in the big scheme of things this was nothing but a calculated attempt to capitalize on the success of ʽGrapevineʼ, which had all the exact same ingredients, right down to the vocal harmonies and the exact same verse structure with similar expressions and rhymes. Except, of course, the hook was tougher and the mood was creepier.

By contrast, the second big hit single off this album, ʽToo Busy Thinking About My Babyʼ (again, a well-worn tune, previously recorded by The Temptations), is intentionally happy, with a joyful hook that is more carried by the strings and The Andantes than Marvin's lead. He does his best impression of an overjoyed fellow, yet it seems clear that he has to work hard with himself to get into this kind of mood — play it back to back with something like ʽPride And Joyʼ, made way back in the long gone years of innocence and wild love for Anna Gordy, and feel the difference that half a decade can make. He is far more natural on ʽThe End Of Our Roadʼ, a jerky, synco­pated R&B groove (rather than the straight pop of ʽToo Busyʼ) with a tiny bit of «experimenta­tion» in the form of a nagging, nasty sitar riff carrying the song (at least, seems very much like a sitar to me — don't have any direct confirmation at hand). But even that song, too, was a second hand contribution: another former hit from Gladys Knight & The Pips, again remade from a fiery, hatred-turned-to-joy, invigorating dance number into a darker, more disturbing personal confes­sion by the Whitfield/Strong team.

So you see where I am going here: M.P.G. has a lot going in its favor (an artist in turmoil; a well-oiled team of songwriters, producers, and musicians working at the height of the rock / R&B era), but it also suffers from the typical sophomore curse — Motown found the strength to provide their best solo artist with a refreshed formula, and then immediately made him redo it all over again with predictably diminishing results. As few complaints as there can be about the overall quality of the sound, as the tracklist goes on, there is simply not much to say about these songs: most of the other tracks rehash the recipes of The Temptations, The Miracles, The Four Tops, sounding cool while they are on but not leaving much of a lasting impression. Just as ʽI Heard Through The Grapevineʼ made a bold claim about re-establishing Marvin as an artist with his own voice, so does M.P.G., once again, succumb to the threat of re-establishing him as a first-rate second-hand re-interpreter of other people's voices. He cannot be blamed for that in person (considering all that he was going through, it is a miracle that he could work at all, much less still sing as if his life depended on it), but Motown executives certainly can. That said, fans will most certainly see through the superficial blandness and feed on the sharp shards of real feeling — in a way, an anguished and tormented Marvin Gaye doing second-hand material might be a better proposition than a peaceful and contented Marvin Gaye engaged in original and experimental work. (Not that the latter combination ever took place, though).

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