Saturday, March 12, 2016

Black Messiah (2014)

I'm very fond of this loose tribute to early-'70s funk and soul (think Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Miles Davis), though it raises a few perplexing questions. Not the least of which, for example: isn't D'Angelo known for his singing? At best, that's swallowed in the mix here. I'm not saying that's a bad thing—the groove in service to the mood is the main point and little gets in the way. Some other time for the sultry torch songs, seems to be the idea (yet perhaps inevitably strains of that show up when you're not looking). The band is very sharp, intuitively in touch with itself. But much of it is D'Angelo overdubbing himself in the studio, so "intuitively in touch with itself" should not be so surprising. In that case, the surprise is how loose and spontaneous the "band" sounds, raving it up in the studio. Another question: why the long spaces between albums? Black Messiah is only D'Angelo's third album in 20 years, which may be the most remarkable and perplexing point of all. But we mostly know the answers there. He was working on the album for much of the time since his last one, Voodoo, in 2000. Many well documented personal problems intervened, which may explain in part the sadness that broods over this set. Again, the apt and familiar comparisons are to Sly circa There's a Riot Goin' On and Marvin circa What's Going On. The historical parallels between the times are almost irresistible: a seeming huge step forward, the civil rights advances for Sly and Marvin, election and reelection of the first African-American president for D'Angelo, followed by numerous setbacks. Bewilderment and loss are the order of the day. That's not all there is to Black Messiah, of course, which is often as uplifting as it is melancholy, working on a rich stew of funk, gospel, and African-American pride. But the result is just a little bit of a muddle—I have to admit I haven't bothered to parse the lyrics at all. Every time I try to concentrate on them I'm somehow too easily distracted by other things—the friendly swagger of the groove, the odd textures, or maybe by something I'm reading on the Internet. The album wavers in and out of attention, never entirely commanding it. I still can't make up my mind if it's objectively good or bad (in any and all senses, I suppose) or what, but I play it a lot and expect I will for awhile.

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