Maxwell, "blackSUMMERS'night" Album Review
-This is probably the most experimental Maxwell we've ever seen
Maxwell fans should feel blessed; their hero successfully released twice as many albums in the last 15 years as fellow soul man D'Angelo, though that's not a production quantity to be proud of. True fans, however, are never offended, as long as the quality is up-to-par. Making music is a lot like sex (while the two are often inspired by each other): sure, it hurts as a musician to count up the days it's been since you last made new material, and you often have friends and fans even your parents asking you nosy questions like "damn, how long has it been?", but the painful recollection of having created some awful, awful music far exceeds the displeasure of not making any, especially because that awful stuff you've done often lingers on forever and ever and there's no escaping the memory it.
So, the real question is, as long-time fans, do we think the follow-up to BLACKsummer'snight, blackSUMMERS'night (I know, I know, the titles are confusing as shit) is worth the wait?
Let me put it this way. Is it a more tasteful record than most other albums I've heard all year? Without a doubt. Is it worth the 7-year wait, its quality so high it makes sense that it took Maxwell 7 years? Gonna say no to that one. It's a decent-in-quality, fresh and smooth record, but with a few to almost zero super memorable track. That seems to be Maxwell's main struggle ever since his debut Urban Hang Suite: he successfully inherited the art of album-crafting from the GOAT seduction master Marvin Gaye, and his ability to create a cohesive and consistent record is almost unparalleled; unfortunately, his inability to generate hits has proven to be his downfall in his career. Maybe that's just the difficulty a musician who's foremost a pure groove artist before a songwriter naturally has to face. Maxwell is in a way a poor man's James Brown: he's world-renowned as hell of a live performer with impeccable vocal abilities, yet he doesn't quite have the charisma that Brown had that can lead hundreds and hundreds of what were essentially recordings of jam sessions with a lot of similar chord progressions and instrumental arrangements. Oh, and James Brown was a very formidable songwriter--in no way am I ignoring that. Although, I must say this is possibly the one record of Maxwell's on which he's exhibited the most melodic and lyrical creativity. Sadly, it's still not enough win Maxwell a Grammy this year.
The positives, though: this is probably the most experimental Maxwell we've ever seen. And that's not to say that Maxwell isn't known to be experimental. The man has a quite unique vision for sounds. He often seeks out the unlikely and incorporates it into his music as motifs, instrumental or conceptual. Before Now, Maxwell was mostly a plugged-in type of guy, yet on the 2001 album the acoustic guitar was a recurring theme, giving his music a fresh, bluesy vibe that he hadn't utilized before, most evidently on W/As My Girl. On Embrya, it was the over-complex, Musiq-Soulchild-esque run-on song titles and lengthy tracks. That didn't seem to work out so well. Anyways, Maxwell has always been quite the risk-taker. The reasons why I think Maxwell is at his most experimental on this new album are his use of electronic elements and the way he chooses to mix down the album. We hear a lot of artificial sounds throughout the album, some songs actually driven by these electronic cues ("III"). The mixing often involves a lot of hard compression on the drums and overdrive & distortion on the vocals.
"Lake by the Ocean" is by far the most memorable song off the album--and that could be because I'd been jamming to this song for months before the actual release of the album. Maxwell handled a lot of the preliminary marketing of this album himself (same way that he handled the songwriting all by himself), releasing almost half of the album on Spotify before the album release, while posting frequently on his Instagram account for months (speaking of which, do these musicians manage their own Instagram accounts? Just out of curiosity). The catchy hook is accompanied by a clean piano riff and over-compressed drums, an unlikely combination. Frankly, I wasn't crazy about "Lake by the Ocean" the first time I heard, but it's since grown on me and become one of my favorite songs of the year. Hope that the rest of the album has the same effect.
"All the Way Love Can Feel" is a solid album opener. It's a low key quiet storm joint that right away features the falsetto we've been waiting to hear for 7 years. A perfect blend of contemporary electronic ambience and an old-school horn session, it's everything we love about Maxwell. "Hostage" is another highlight for me on the album, a song where Maxwell actually breaks free of his groove-oriented formulas and instead lets the melody and concept lead the song forward. Rarely, there's minimal use of high falsetto, and instead we hear Maxwell belt out the climatic turnaround using his chest voice, which sounds positively rugged and a little bit hoarse, but not in a post-Millennium Whitney Houston type of way. "1990x" is where Maxwell straight up handles his business with his trademark soaring falsetto and steamy & abstract lyrical themes. "I'm hearing them saying things all the time/The word on the street is I'm losing my mind," Maxwell's personal depiction his obsession and spiritual connection with a significant other take us back to those "...Til the Cops Come Knockin'" days and resemble Bobby Caldwell in his classic: "My friends wonder what is wrong with me/'Cause I'm in a daze from your love, you see."
Something else worth pointing out: a rare 6/8 time signature occurs in "Lost", something that I just realized that Maxwell has never used before. This is extremely bizarre given that some of the most sensual love songs out there are in 6/8, and Maxwell is nothing if not a master seducer. In his interview with NPR, Maxwell revealed that "Lost" was the product of spontaneity, only taking him one-take to complete the writing and ad-libbing. Funny how some songs can come so naturally yet albums can take years. However, on first listen, "Lost" is melodically profound and engaging just like other songs on the album. At some point, Maxwell's vocals land on "I don't knoooowwwww...", and his voice suddenly turns distorted and drenched in pain, the kind of tear in his voice barely ever heard before. Maxwell suggests in his interview that certain songs don't take long to write, but it does take a long time for the idea to even come alive. And that is true in songwriting: creating the content can come super naturally, but all at the cost of actual challenging experiences that inspire in real life.
When asked about the reason why he has chosen to mostly stick to the themes and concepts he has maintained throughout his career and has only embraced minimal changes in his material, Maxwell revealed that he actually enjoys a lot of the new material put out by young artists (while claiming that he's a fan of Chris Brown, which is both unsettling and a little disappointing), but he hopes that his music stands the test of time. And that he won't look like an idiot in 10 years singing his old stuff as a 50-year-old. Just this little detail right here makes me respect the man even more than I already did. Art is nothing if not about staying true to the unique experiences you endure. It's perfectly likely that someone who has never heard anything by Maxwell listens to Urban Hang Suite and BLACKsummer'snight and is unable to determine which album came first. And it's true: Maxwell embraced the sex symbol role as soon as he first debuted as a 23-year-old who looked extremely mature with his tall figure and beautiful afro, yet his infatuation with love, relationships and sex have remained his musical priority. That's what he started on, and that's what he holds true. It's cliché, but we do need more artists like Maxwell, now more than ever. We need new young artists who not only have the power to garner a solid and equally persistent fanbase with their authenticity for years and years, but also have the persistence themselves to resist the temptation coming from trends and be able to both sing and listen to themselves. Great artists not only create art; they are art themselves.