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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Marvin Gaye: Trouble Man


1) Main Theme From Trouble Man (2); 2) 'T' Plays It Cool; 3) Poor Abbey Walsh; 4) The Break In (Police Shoot Big); 5) Cleo's Apartment; 6) Trouble Man; 7) Theme From Trouble Man; 8) 'T' Stands For Trouble; 9) Main Theme From Trouble Man (1); 10) Life Is A Gamble; 11) Deep-In-It; 12) Don't Mess With Mister 'T'; 13) There Goes Mister 'T'.

General verdict: A soundtrack, but not so much to a movie as to the artist's own troubled relations with the world at large.

A peculiar fact of Marvin's career is that he only acted as sole writer and producer on two full LPs in his lifetime, and the first one of these was a soundtrack — although even here, the pro­posal to compose it came from Motown, what with «blaxploitation» movies being all the rage in the early Seventies and soundtracks such as Shaft and Superfly being legitimately counted among the great masterpieces of contemporary R&B and all. Most of those actual movies had far more social value for their time than artistic merits, and allegedly Trouble Man, a crime flick about a private detective exploring the bowels of life on the black-and-white fringe, was no exception. But the soundtrack has survived, and despite its predictably low share of actual songs, endures as sort of a minor classic in the Marvin Gaye canon.

Since, unlike Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, Marvin's emphasis was almost always confined to the soul aspect of the business rather than to the harsh-rockin' grooves, Trouble Man emerges or, rather, looms as an anthemic suite of suspense, foreboding, dark alleys, shady deals, neuroses, panic attacks, and necrologies. In fact, it makes for a perfect companion to What's Going On: if that record was more of a general prayer for the healing of the world's troubles, Trouble Man opens up an actual window on those troubles themselves — it is grim, bleak, mournful, with not really a single melody or vocal piece that would offer a ray of light; sorrow and melancholy are probably the sweetest emotions that could be associated with this music.

The centerpiece is ʽTrouble Manʼ itself, a song whose lyrics apply equally well to «Mr. T», the movie protagonist, and to Marvin himself. Compositionally, it's not much to speak of — a crude, simple blues-rocker that might as well be written by Bad Company; what matters is the arrange­ment — half-muted, creepy-sinister bass, piano, guitar and brass that seem to be stalking the listener from the shadows — and Marvin's falsetto delivery: this is not the tender-loving kind of falsetto, but rather the painfully-weeping kind of falsetto, the get-your-balls-in-a-vice-for-three-and-a-half-minutes kind of falsetto. The key moment of the song is the key change from "there's only three things for sure — taxes, death and trouble" to "this I know, baby, this I've known, baby"; the way he says it, you almost get the feeling that Marvin Gaye truly knows more about taxes, death and trouble than anybody else, even if it might be factually incorrect. There's also a musically impressive rise and cliff-jump at the end of each chorus — not on progressive rock level, perhaps, but a good suspenseful hook that finally turns the melody into something bigger than a proto-Bad Company blues rocker.

Several variations on the same melody are made into two different versions of the ʽMain Theme From Trouble Manʼ, not very different from each other and featuring extended sax solos from different session musicians. However, the other instrumental tracks are surprisingly diverse and actually seem to show a bigger interest in pure music-making on Marvin's part than even What's Going On. There are some smooth funky grooves on which Gaye himself is credited for playing synthesizers (ʽT Plays It Coolʼ, ʽT Stands For Troubleʼ); ballads (sometimes with minimal vocals) that walk a thin line between smooth jazz and avantgarde classical (ʽPoor Abbey Walshʼ, with its paranoid dissonant piano chords unexpectedly breaking the smoothness of the flow); Moog solos that sound as if they were taken out of prog-rock's textbook (ʽDeep-In-Itʼ); and sentimental passages that seem influenced by Sixties' soundtracks to French romantic movies (ʽDon't Mess With Mr. Tʼ). None of this stuff is truly breathtaking on its own, but the tracks do fall together in such a way that the album looks like a musical portrait — of one man's physical hassles and never ending spiritual torment.

It seems obvious to me that the album might have gained even bigger acclaim if its soundtrack status never existed in the first place — it is definitely more of a soundtrack to Marvin's own state of mind and, even bigger, to the state of things in the world of 1972's black America than to some long-forgotten movie about an African-American private detective. And it offers an excellent reflection of Gaye's character, too: the man was never about anger or violence as he was about sorrow and pity, so that Trouble Man spends most of its time weeping rather than cursing, mourning rather than calling to action — the title character is a person hopelessly locked in a karmic cycle with little hope of redemption. Even if there are musical elements here that instantly date the package (the use of this particular mix of strings, horns, and Moogs is a bit of a musical cliché), it still stands out from the typical fare of 1972, just because the artist has bothered to put a little bit more of his own soul in the music than was usually required for such matters.

But the more you think about it, the more unsettling it becomes — it's as if the naïve inner child of What's Going On, asking his innocent questions and hoping for a little bit of light, has matured here into a psychologically unstable and thoroughly pessimistic desperado. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Marvin would almost completely abandon «socially relevant» subjects in the following years and totally concentrate on amorous subjects instead: Trouble Man is the album of somebody who is so deeply disgusted in the world around him that the only possible solutions are either to take your own life, or to stop paying this undeserving world any attention. Ultimately, I guess, Marvin chose both (if you look at his killing not as an unfortunate accident, but as a sort of inevitable denouement).


  1. What a review. I've had this for years but never listened to it. Better go listen.

  2. Nice info. In my country I never heard of this band. I will try to listen, and if I find that I like it, I will sincerally thank you!

  3. Great review of this classic. I actually discovered this album thanks to a superhero film. Since you found this album dark, I can't wait to hear your take on Here My Dear.