Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Marvin Gaye Album (Part 4)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

In Our Lifetime (1981, Tamla)

B  

Gaye closed the ‘70s on a quiet note commercially, and the ‘80s got off to no stronger a start for the Motown legend. In the intervening years since Here, My Dear, Gaye had recorded a new studio disc, the disco-oriented Love Man, then – much to the aggravation of Motown – scrapped the release of the album after the artwork had already undergone a test pressing. Much of the Love Man material was revisited and revised for this disc, which an impatient Motown allegedly got a hold of while Gaye was still in the studio trying to mix it to his liking and retooled without Gaye’s consultation in order to make it a more commercial product. Gaye was reportedly angry over both the changes made to the album and the disc’s consequent rush-release, but it’s hard to blame Motown – it had been over two full years since his last album and nearly five since his last genuinely commercial album, and Gaye was becoming for Motown the same sort of problem Neil Young would famously be to Geffen Records years later. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Gaye would bolt Motown after the release of this album and sign a new deal with Columbia.) Ultimately, In Our Lifetime is no better or no worse than Love Man and, much like that disc, it’s a reasonably well-crafted album piece that’s both intriguing and sounds great while it’s on but lacks anything resembling a solid single. “Praise” and “Heavy Love Affair” are arguably the best cuts here, but neither cut is as memorable as “Ego Tripping Out,” a non-LP single from 1979 that was supposed to be the lead-off single for Love Man but wouldn’t even end up making the cut for initial pressings of In Our Lifetime, Motown wisely tacking the song onto the beginning of 1994 reissues of the album, so this is one disc that ends up being much better in reissued form than in its original incarnation.

Midnight Love (1982, Columbia)

A

A true return to form, Gaye’s first post-Motown album is his best since Let’s Get It On. Gaye sounds thoroughly creatively refreshed here, and he’s also back to sounding as if he’s trying to make music for the masses again. In fact, this disc almost sounds like a deliberate sequel to Let’s Get It On, retaining both the gently-funky mellow soul sound of that disc and its risqué subject matter but safely avoiding the repetition and the disjointed feel that hurt I Want You in comparison. The songwriting is also Gaye’s most hooky set of material in some time, and he’d garner a major – and, at this point, badly-needed – comeback hit in the now-iconic silky-smooth grooves of the Top Three hit “Sexual Healing,” which sat at the top of the R&B charts for ten weeks and would undoubtedly influence many a subsequent mid-‘80s R&B side with its slinky, Roland-drum-machine-driven sound. [Impressively, Gaye plays all the instruments on the cut except for the guitar.] Though nothing else here would reach the Top 40, there are other fine tunes here, including the slinky grooves of “My Love Is Waiting,” the dance-floor-minded “Rockin’ After Midnight,” the Bob Marley-inspired “Third World Girl,” and “Turn on Some Music,” the last of which would help to give Gaye a posthumous Top 40 hit in 2001 after Erick Sermon sampled the song on “Music,” which garnered the Motown legend a featured artist credit on the track.

Dream of a Lifetime (1985, Columbia)

C  

It was perhaps inevitable that Columbia, which had only received one completed album from Gaye prior to his untimely and tragic death in 1984, would resort to releasing posthumous archival material. They only had a few songs to work with dating from his tenure with the label, however, so this album is an odd hodgepodge of both Midnight Love outtakes and Motown-era outtakes dating all the way back to 1971. Frankly, the Columbia-era material here should never have been released, “Masochistic Beauty” and “Sanctified Lady” seeming like little more than exercises to shock listeners. (Be advised: this is probably Gaye’s most explicit album, even more so than Let’s Get It On or I Want You.) Nor should the equally tasteless “Savage in the Sack” have been released, either.  The best cuts here are all Motown-era outtakes – including the Here, My Dear-era side “Ain’t It Funny (How Things Turn Around),” the Smokey Robinson co-write and Let’s Get It On outtake “Symphony,” and the near-eight-minute epic “Life’s Opera,” while the title cut was originally offered to Sammy Davis, Jr. back in 1972 and rejected – and they all appear on the second side, sadly, so you have to skip past a lot of dreck to get to the better material.

Romantically Yours (1985, Columbia)

C

Columbia’s second posthumous disc of studio recordings from Gaye is this time entirely centered around outtakes from Gaye’s Motown years. This might sound exciting in theory, but unfortunately, half of this material dates from sessions from Gaye’s more standards-oriented albums, and the album’s entire first side consists of covers of such well-worn standards as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “More,” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” The second side – including four jazz-styled originals from Gaye and an Eddie Holland-Norman Whitfield tune, “Happy-Go-Lucky” – is a bit more interesting, but overall, this disc is really just for the diehard fans and collectors out there and can safely be bypassed by the more casual Marvin Gaye fan.

Love Starved Heart: Rare and Unreleased (1994, Motown)

B

Easily the best of the posthumous archival albums of previously unreleased material from Gaye, this disc exclusively consists of material in the Motown vaults dating from the ‘60s, so some listeners hoping for outtakes from What’s Going On or Let’s Get It On or I Want You may be disappointed, but this is no disc of pop or jazz standards, either, and everything here comes from Motown’s in-house staff of songwriters like Ashford & Simpson, Johnny Bristol, Frank Wilson, and Mickey Stevenson, so this is a much more distinctly R&B-flavored affair than Romantically Yours was. It’s certainly not a necessary purchase, but it’s an appealing one, and there are some gems scattered throughout, most notably “This Love Starved Heart of Mine” and “It’s a Desperate Situation,” that are enough to make you scratch your head and wonder why Motown sat on this material as long as they did.

Vulnerable (1997, Motown)

C –

Shockingly enough, even after reaping all sorts of critical praise throughout the ‘70s for such discs as What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, Gaye remained convinced that his real calling was as a crooner ofstandards, and he came dangerously close in 1979 to issuing a mostly-standards-based album called The Ballads as the follow-up to Here, My Dear, even telling personal friends that The Ballads was the best thing he had ever made, which just goes to prove that artists aren’t always the best judge of their own work. Half of the material from The Ballads would eventually see the light of day on Romantically Yours, while the other half would finally emerge on this posthumous late ‘90s release from Motown. It ends up feeling like an even cruder cash-in than most, though: while there are ten tracks here, three of them are alternate versions of the remaining seven songs, and three of those seven songs were already issued in different form on Romantically Yours, so there are technically only four songs here making their debut on a Marvin Gaye album. Nothing here is noticeably bad, but you’re not getting a heck of a lot of music for your money here, and this still remains the sound of Gaye doing not the smooth R&B and mellow funk that was his forte, but singing jazz standards, something he wasn’t necessarily bad at but nothing he was especially exceptional at, either.

Compilations:

There are literally dozens of Marvin Gaye hits packages to choose from, but most of them are either too brief to be quite satisfying or just cover a small period of his career, so your best option is to pick up the delightful 2001 double-disc set The Very Best of Marvin Gaye (later reissued in 2005 with more generic packaging under the simple title Gold), which starts off with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and runs all the way through “Sexual Healing,” incorporating the overwhelming majority – though not all – of his Top 40 hits and including some lesser-known gems along the way like the 1972 non-LP single “You’re the Man,” and the 1979 non-LP cut “Ego Tripping Out.” (Thankfully, though quite a few Top 40 hits are absent here, most of them are so minor that only a more avid fan would notice, and “Try It Baby” is as egregious a non-duet inclusion as there is here.) It also includes most of his hit duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, though it strangely sidesteps any of his work with Mary Wells or Diana Ross; if the Ross duets “You’re a Special Part of Me” and the criminally-underrated “My Mistake (Was to Love You)” had been added, this would have been a pretty much perfect package.

Live Albums:

Avoid the 1963 package Marvin Gaye Record Live on Stage, which features just eight tracks and arrived too early in his career to include any hits other than “Hitch Hike,” “Pride and Joy,” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” The 2005 disc Live at the Copa is actually a long-belated release of an album originally scheduled for a 1967 release and inexplicably cancelled at the last minute, but, like most Motown live albums taped at the Copa, it’s not at all representative of the artist and is way too standards-heavy and plays far too much to the typical Copa crowd to really be of much recommendation to a fan of the artist. A better option is 1974’s Marvin Gaye Live!, which, at a single forty-four-minute disc in its original form, is a bit too brief (six of his early hits are condensed into an eleven-and-a-half-minute medley, while “I Heard It through the Grapevine” strangely does not appear here at all), but contains a legendary shriek-provoking rendition of “Distant Lover” that became a Top 40 hit and a new song called “Jan” that’s unavailable on any of his studio albums. 1977’s Live at the London Palladium suffers from some of the same problems – namely, that the bulk of his most famous hits have been reduced to snippets in medleys, including “I Heard It through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On”; of all his Top 40 smashes, only four (“Distant Lover,” “Let’s Get It On,” “Trouble Man,” and “Come Get to This”) are performed as stand-alone numbers – but it offers you more music for your money than its predecessor, and the entire fourth side is devoted to the full-length album version of the disco-funk workout “Got to Give It Up,” a Number One hit that would make headlines all over again decades later as the song at the center of the plagiarism controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s eyebrow-raising “Blurred Lines.”