Two weeks after the untimely death of Michael Jackson and the embarrassing coonery that became the 2009 BET Awards, which in part gave a cringe-inducing tribute to the King of Pop, and, to a lesser degree, the demise of Vibe magazine—all of which occurred eerily during Black Music Month—the R&B world is in great need of a refreshing summer jam that will restore our faith in contemporary soul music, something that is sensual, smart and Auto-Tune free.
Maxwell’s hotly anticipated BLACKSummers’ Night (Columbia Records) is that elixir, arriving just in the knick of time.
Now, it won’t wipe away the tears from losing Jackson. In fact, the bittersweetness of most of BLACKSummers’ Night will bring more tears. Indeed, the disc makes you feel good even though it’s not a “free good” album. Witness the wistful lead single, “Pretty Wings,” one of the most exquisite kiss-off songs to come from R&B in awhile. Even when Maxwell’s falsetto laments the rueful, “You played me dirty your game was so bad/You toyed with my affliction. Had to fill my prescription/Found the remedy/I had to set you free,” the song’s spectral arrangement and emotional tug give off a cleansing sensation.
His gift for couching somber sentiments in lovely arrangements shines again in the tender “Playing Possum.” Set against Hod David’s plaintive guitar accompaniment, Maxwell pours his heart out to a stoic lover, searching for some true emotion, even though verses such as “Express disappointment, speak your regrets” hint that he’s probably the source of her frigid demeanor. Nevertheless, when he pleads, “I'm begging you, sugar, have some leniency/Call the president and ask him, baby, to pardon me and bring you back to me,” it’s difficult not to root for Maxwell because of his gorgeous delivery and emotional conviction.
Heartache runs deep in other songs such as the blues-drenched, mid-tempo romp “Cold,” on which Maxwell’s grainy tenor croons out the spiteful verses: “Hell hath no fury than the flurry of your snow/Global warming ain’t got nothing on this chick she's not to play with,” and on “Fistful of Tears,” where he laments the stress of staying committed to a mentally unstable paramour with the chorus: “Cause I, I go insane, crazy sometimes/
Trying to keep you from losing your mind/Open your eyes, see what's in front of your face/Save me my fistful of tears.”
The wounded romance that surges through BLACKSummers’ Night recalls the tortured soul Marvin Gaye conjured on his 1978’s salty masterpiece, Here, My Dear (Tamla Records) and Al Green’s 1977’s defining The Belle Album (Hi Records).
Conversely, the album does have its cheerier moments, as illustrated on the steamy opener, “Bad Habits,” in which Maxwell tells his lover to “prove it to me in the nude” and the slightly apocalyptic “Stop the World,” in which he argues that lovemaking will protect him from the harshness of the outside world.
Considering all the buzz surrounding BLACKSummers’ Night, Maxwell’s first album in eight years, and all its delayed release dates, Maxwell keeps his ambitions in check, preventing the album from delving into esoteric erotica that made his 1998 sophomore disc Embrya so baffling. His song writing strikes a delicate balance of sounding personal and heartfelt but with universal clarity. The disc also ups the ante on the musicianship, relying mostly on instrumentation indicative of ’70s soul but not falling prey to threadbare treacle.
The disc concludes with “Phoenix Rise,” a curiously upbeat instrumental that functions as a nice cliffhanger for the next chapter in BLACKSummers’ Night reported trilogy. And in some way, it promises brighter days for R&B itself.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.