BY ED KING Almost forget about your anniversary and need to get your woman something fast? You won’t go wrong with this album. You know what they say about all the great singers: “So-and-so could sing the phone book and make it sound good!” On Lay It Down, Al Green’s continued return to secular recording, the reverend has ?uestlove and James Poyser behind the board and in the band — and it’s not exactly the phone book that he sings with such mastery but Hallmark-worthy inspirational platitudes.
Be that as it may, the considerable strengths of this collection, which also includes tastefully marketing-driven cameos by contemporary artists John Legend, Corrine Bailey Ray, and Anthony Hamilton, are Green’s voice and the comfortable arrangements in which that voice is set. Each track works off the classic template of Green’s Willie Mitchell-produced ’70s albums, most notably the title track, but in a way that skirts the problem comebacking legends often face when being slavishly produced by younger acolytes. ?uestlove’s warm, flat drums and Spanky Alford’s jazzy guitar fills are mixed front and center in ways not often heard on contemporary albums (when’s the last time I’ve heard so many tasty guitar fills peeking out through an entire pop album), but the arrangements are more romantic and sweeping than Green’s more idiosyncratic work from the ’70s. On songs like “You’ve Got the Love I Need” and “Too Much,” I imagine what Gamble and Huff might have done with Green after he’d run his initial course with Mitchell and before he gave departed the pop music world with The Belle Album.
For all that’s solid and right about this album, the one thing that’s not resonating with me is how placid the lyrics are. The joy of a song like “Just For Me” is palpable. But then it’s 10 songs later, and Green is still expressing nothing but complete contentment with the love of his life, and I might as well be sitting among the choir, singing the praises of the Lord. I don’t wish the man trouble and doubt, but as a listener I hope to hear a sense of questioning and discovery from the artist. At one point in the 1984 documentary, Gospel According to Al Green, a long conversation with the Rev. Al Green that is open to nothing but questioning and discovery, Green talks about his love and longing for God being much more satisfying for him to write and sing about than the love and longing he had for any woman in his pop star days. He’s sitting in his ’80s-era minister get-up as he says this, with a guitar in his lap. Then he starts playing one of his massive, ’70s pop hits — the kind he’d just dismissed — and you can’t help but wonder where the lines are drawn in this guy’s psyche. I get goosebumps just thinking of this half-remembered scene, but on Lay It Down, despite strong performances in all areas, there’s no sense of those zig-zagging lines, no goosebumps. To paraphrase that key line in “Belle,” “Oh, it’s secular Al records that I want, but it’s Green that I need.”
AL GREEN: Belle
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ed King likes a lot of things, but mostly he likes to be left alone. Ed has kicked around the outer orbits of the periphery of local scene for some time. He was there when Tuxedomoon played Revival. Ed likes all things great and some things good. Anymore, what falls short of those simple criteria gets harder to bear. He appreciates you respecting his privacy at time like this.