by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
What’s Going On (1971, Tamla)
Easily one of the greatest albums of all-time, this wildly influential affair finds Gaye – the Vietnam war weighing heavily on his mind – taking advantage of the creative control he had successfully fought to obtain from Motown and delving into deeper, more sociopolitical-oriented territory than he had ever dared to cover before. This could have been a very risky move – not just commercially but artistically – but what makes this record succeed wildly while many other equally socio-politically-inclined albums don’t – like, for instance, many of Neil Young’s most political albums – is that Gaye both understands the importance of being subtle [though the commentary never lets up, Gaye keeps his subject matter broad and doesn’t pepper the disc with references that might have dated themselves years or even mere months later, something Young has never exactly mastered the art of in his most topical material] and Gaye also realizes that even topical songs like these still need strong and pleasant melodies to work, so many of these songs are both more lovely and catchy than your average protest record. This album is too important – not just to Gaye’s own career, but to the recorded history of pop music – for any avid music fan to not listen to in its entirety at least once, but as great an album piece though this is, the disc still has its individual highlights, particularly the lovely “God Is Love” and the three hit singles, all Top Ten hits: the groundbreaking title cut (which, interestingly enough, Berry Gordy reportedly hated with a passion and only issued as a single after Gaye threatened to go on strike if it wasn’t released as one), the haunting “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and the lovely lament of “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” This is a must-own for any serious record collector. The 2002 reissue tacks on two delightful extra cuts, an alternate version of “God Is Love” that was previously available only as the B-side of “What’s Going On” and an early version of “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky)” entitled “Sad Tomorrows” that showed up as the B-side of “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Trouble Man (1972, Tamla)
Recommended but with an asterisk, the little-known Trouble Man is actually a soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film that didn’t fare nearly as well in the theaters as its soundtrack did in record stores. Like Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to Shaft or Curtis Mayfield’s for Superfly, it’s well-crafted, dramatic, and even occasionally haunting, but the key difference between Trouble Man and Shaft or Superfly is that the latter soundtracks are much more noticeably song-oriented and contain a great deal more in the way of lyrics, whereas the title cut is the only track here to feature Gaye on vocals for the better part of its duration, and even that song is still a radical departure from Gaye’s usual output, its lazy, swinging grooves (which Gaye sings atop in full falsetto mode for the entirety of the cut) bearing more resemblance to jazz than R&B and not having nearly as conventional a song structure as your average Gaye radio fodder. [That doesn’t prevent the song from being a knockout, though, “Trouble Man” being perhaps the most atmospheric of all Gaye’s singles, and the song, unconventional though it is, still managed to crack the Top Ten.] This is definitely one of Gaye’s most intriguing and artistically adventurous records, but it ultimately stops just shy of being in the upper echelon of his work due to the lack of vocals from the legendary singer, which is a shame – a few more fully-realized songs like “Trouble Man,” and we might have been speaking as highly of this soundtrack today as we do of Superfly.
Let’s Get It On (1973, Tamla)
Not quite as solid as What’s Going On, but nearly every bit as iconic and influential, Gaye’s not concerned with social or political or environmental matters here like he was on What’s Going On. Rather, this disc is a full-blown, unapologetic, frank celebration of sex, even right down to the liner notes included on the inside gatefold cover, which includes a brief – and still fairly shocking – essay from Gaye that makes even the most risqué Ohio Players album cover seem mild in comparison. Let’s Get It On is certainly not Gaye’s most poetic album by any stretch of the imagination and is at least partially responsible for inspiring many a future R&B or hip-hop singer with little, if any, sense of subtlety at all in their music (let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of artists in contemporary R&B today who can write lustful lyrics with the same delicacy or tastefulness that early wordsmiths like Smokey Robinson excelled at), but, positive influence or not, there’s no denying this album was groundbreaking (and not simply from a lyrical perspective, the moaning on “You Sure Love to Ball” also generating much controversy), and regardless what you might think of the disc’s lyrical content, the music throughout is certainly inviting and intoxicating. The most famous song of all here is, of course, the chart-topping title cut, the opening guitar notes of which have become one of the most immediately recognizable intros in the entire history of R&B. But there are other much less well-known songs here that are just as good, if not arguably superior, especially “Distant Lover” and, even better, the sunny, early-Motown-flavored R&B shuffle of “Come Get to This,” the backing track of which is stunning in its own right with its insistent saxophone fills and gorgeous multi-layered background vocals.
Diana and Marvin (1973, Motown)
Marvin’s final full-length duets project found him teaming up with Motown’s biggest female star of all, Diana Ross. Reportedly, the two clashed quite a bit during the sessions, but musically speaking, they make a nice match for each other, and though this disc lacks the magic of the best Gaye-and-Terrell discs, Ross makes a better foil for Gaye than Mary Wells or Kim Weston had, and this oft-forgotten album tends to be a bit underrated. There are perhaps more cover songs here than there really should be – including songs previously done by Johnny Ace and Wilson Pickett, as well as two different Stylistics covers – but the new originals here are pretty good, especially “You’re a Special Part of Me” and, best of all, “My Mistake (Was to Love You),” which is very much a candidate for the title of the most underrated Marvin Gaye single of all, its rhythm track being centered around the unlikely but surprisingly irresistible blend of harmonica, harpsichord, and some very snappy, funky drumming, while a coy Diana delivers her own lines with a sexy, off-handed bit of restraint that makes for the perfect response to Gaye’s soul-baring, deeply passionate crooning here.
I Want You (1976, Tamla)
More or less a disco version of Let’s Get It On but with less songwriting input from Gaye, most of the songs here being penned by Leon Ware and Arthur “T-Boy” Ross (Diana’s younger brother), this disc is every bit as sex-obsessed as Let’s Get It On was, but its more disco-oriented sound means that it’s less charming than its more R&B-driven predecessor. While the disc does work effectively as background music at a late-night party, if you actually sit down with this album and pay close attention to it, you realize that there’s not really a whole lot here and that the album feels either very hastily assembled or even uncompleted. Three of the eleven tracks are all different versions of the title cut, while another track (“After the Dance”) is presented in both a vocal version and an unnecessary instrumental one and a cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” crops up in only an excerpt lasting less than eighty seconds. So, technically, there are actually only seven different full songs presented here. The haunting-yet-sultry title cut would reach #15 and would go on to be covered by quite a few artists, including Robert Palmer, who combined the song with Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” to create one of the few medleys to reach the Top 40 in the ‘90s. “After the Dance” is also a memorable outing, but aside from those two songs, few cuts here particularly stand out, and though the disc makes an interesting album piece as a whole, it doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding on a songwriting level as Let’s Get It On.
Here, My Dear (1978, Tamla)
Marvin married Anna Gordy, a Motown staff songwriter (best known for co-writing the Originals’ “Baby, I’m for Real”) seventeen years his senior and the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, in 1963. The couple would separate in 1972, and Anna would file for divorce at the end of 1975, by which time Marvin and his future second wife Janis Hunter had welcomed their first child, actress Nona Gaye (best known for playing Zee in the Matrix movies.) The divorce battle was a nasty and drawn-out one that would not be finalized until 1977, Gaye finally agreeing to a judge’s order that required him to give half his royalties from his next album to Anna as settlement for back alimony owed, which leads us to this intriguing but thoroughly insular and mean-spirited double album. It’s not a very commercial disc by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s largely by design: Gaye decided to use the disc to vent all his anger over his battles with his ex-wife (all the more shocking and questionable a move when you remember that Gaye’s boss – the man who presided over the label Gaye was making this album for – was his ex-wife’s brother), and that’s not only transparent in the lyrics (two songs are entitled “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You” and “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” and Gaye even goes so far as to title one of the tracks “Anna’s Song”) but in the packaging and album title as well, which make it clear to even the uninformed that Marvin’s simply making this album as a legal obligation to the ex. It’s Gaye’s most starkly emotional disc – even more so than What’s Going On – and he really bares his soul here, but to a fault: he’s so fixated on the lyrical content of this music that he’s neglected to write much in the way of choruses or hooks or craft anything all that particularly appealing to your average radio listener, and while “Sparrow” is lovely and “Anger” and “Falling in Love Again” both mildly memorable, they’re all – at least by the standards of Gaye’s previous ‘70s output – quite weak in comparison. As an album piece, it’s one of the most interesting artistic statements of Gaye’s career and should be quite fascinating to LP aficionados for that reason, but most listeners will likely struggle afterwards to remember the melodies to any particular song, and this is consequently one very overrated album.