On a superficial level, leaping around an artist’s catalogue can be confusing in a variety of ways. There can be a disconnect in the continuity of the artist’s development and that may mess with the perceptions of their catalogue as a whole. Such a phenomenon is absolutely true of Maxwell‘s songbook.
When the singer’s started with Urban Hang Suite in 1996, his was a muse intent on re-invigorating soul music as a romantic style. Like Marvin Gaye and Al Green before him, Maxwell wanted to whisper sweet nothings in his audience’s collective ear and those listening, in turn, responded really positively; Urban Hang Suite went platinum, but the singer had greater goals that he still wanted to realize and would continue to develop through the albums which would follow it (Embrya in 1998 and Now in 2001).
After Now was released, Maxwell took an eight-year break from recording and, for many fans, that absence signalled that he might be finished – but nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, when the singer returned in 2009 with BLACKsummers’night, it wasn’t JUST a return to active duty – it signalled the re-emergence of an artist who had something very specific to present. The ten songs which comprise Maxwell’s fourth album are unmistakably the work of an artist disinterested in releasing JUST ANYTHING TO GET IT OUT; each of these ten are works which have been polished and babied dearly and may have gone through several different incarnations before they were complete.
From the moment “Bad Habits” fades in and opens the album, the sense that this album is intended to be an ambitious return to glory is perfectly self-evident. Here, Maxwell steps up as bolder and more self-confident as he croons lines like “Don’t speak no sound/ I want you to prove it to me in the nude/ Addicted to the way you move” with no hesitation or modesty. In addition, that the song behind him presents as the definition of a muscular ballad only substantiates the lyrical angle; a modest horn section punctuates the lyrics and nudges listeners into them gently.
That kind of push gets them right into “Cold” – a fantastic and groovy love-lost ballad recorded so intimately that listeners can actually hear Shedrick Mitchell’s hands brush over his organ before he begins to play – and then sustaining the vibe with “Pretty Wings” (which won a Grammy for Maxwell’s vocal performance – ’nuff said) but taking a very, very different tack for “Help Somebody” to close the side.
Even seven years after its original release, the tone and tenor of “Help Somebody” really stands out both from BLACKsummers’night in specific as well as from the rest of Maxwell’s recorded output in general. Right off, the singer’s voice brims with a focussed kind of urgency that his music had simply never featured before – seriously, it’s like going from “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green to “Chocolate City” by Funkadelic – and the change instantly causes listeners to snap to attention ESPECIALLY because, to that point, they had never heard anything like it from Maxwell before.
That sudden shift brings with it an instantly magnetic quality which hooks listeners easily, but the attention quickly proves to be deserved; the anthemic, major-key piano figure which weaves around the drums in the song simultaneously adds great color as well as some nerve-wracking tension off of which Maxwell feeds heartily. Lines like “There’s a moving, inner peace that I love to see/ Gotta brace my soul, to tell ya how I feel/ Gotta listen to the tears the people cry for me/ In a world so wild fear creeps” inspire waves of imagination to crest and compel curiosity among listeners to see where the vinyl is headed and flip it as soon as the song ends.
The B-side begins casting new spells as soon as “Stop The World” opens with some Hendrix-esque guitar lick (think “Angel,” not “Voodoo Chile”) and begins whispering still more sweet nothings in listeners’ ears. Here, there’s nothing but true poetic love in every stanza of this four-minute MASH note and it’s impossible to not fall deeply into the song as it plays; Maxwell’s vocal can break hearts with its knee-buckling depth and range, and the fairly needs-first instrumentation which backs it adds a sweet intimacy to the song which is absolutely intoxicating – it is a truly remarkable moment.
The heady rush of “Stop The World” gives way smoothly to the hopeful and upbeat “Love You” before the running crashes nose-first into the stumbling soul of “Fistful of Tears – which is hands-down the weakest moment on the album and threatens to undo all of the artistic progress Maxwell has made with BLACKsummers’night one fell swoop. In this case, it’s not so much that the song is bad as it is a problem with the song sounding like everything else in R&B circa 2009 – it just feels perfectly anonymous but, happily the album doesn’t sink under such a fault, picks up, and ends on a great, strong note with “Phoenix Rise.”
There, Maxwell throws listeners a curve as the song opens with a very treated beat which adds some interesting sparkle and spray to the late-playing of the LP, and then trails off with some great metro beats and a slappy bass. The way the instrumental fades out is actually a very good device; by fading out rather than exploding to a close, both Maxwell and BLACKsummers’night leave the gates open for further development of what they’ve presented as well as offering a bridge over to whatever may come next (which would prove to be handy – given that the follow-up, BlackSUMMERS’night, would pick up the trail left behind seven years later) as well as leaving the desire to go through the album again wide open.
In the end, while it may have been a bit of a jump to get from the reissue of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite to this one without sort of stumbling a bit, it makes perfect sense why BLACKsummers’night was reissued at the same time without the two albums in between: the desire is to present the breakthrough and the pinnacle of power which followed – the stuff in between was just a series of exercises intended to build strength.
After these two, listeners may wonder what happened in between and choose to check that music out, but it is BLACKsummers’night combined with Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite that people really need to hear. That is the unspoken explanation why these two albums were released at the same time and, after having listened, one realizes how much sense it makes.