The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, September 30, 2002

It would be wrong to think of D’Angelo as a musical conservative, a nu-soul Wynton Marsalis. Well, semi-wrong anyway. He looks back at what has preceded him with a great deal of reverence, but utilises their elements and pushes the spirits of their perpetrators forward. This is made abundantly clear on the sleevenote to his second (and to date most recent) album, 2000’s Voodoo, where the author (which I suspect is D’Angelo, referring to himself in the third person) states: “…most of my peers seem to idolise Donald Trump more than Sly Stone…they don’t seem to realise that Jimi Hendrix was and is a sonic Bill Gates. Oh shit, don’t make me call no names.” In fact he does such a pretty thorough analysis of himself, anticipating how other people are going to receive his work/vocal expression, quoting the expected antecedents (Prince, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, the aforementioned Hendrix), pre-empting criticisms, that it would seem to leave little else for this writer to evaluate.

The first thing which struck me on his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, was the bells which serve as additional percussion/punctum on the opening title track. The ringing undertow evokes memories of Pharaoh Sanders’ epic workouts such as “Upper and Lower Egypt” or “Prince of Peace,” an inheritance from the ‘60s New Thing. This gives a spiritual layer to the extremely carnal emotions which D’Angelo is expressing in the song itself. Musically, as with most of his work, it is restrained yet simmering, the passion sonically muted but perceptible. It’s as if the musicians are trying to play as quietly as possible. D’Angelo himself has a smoothly persuasive voice which can still hover deliciously on the verge of ecstatic breakthrough when that point is reached; rather like Prince, but without the gender-playing. The studio chatter at the beginning immediately reminds us of Marvin Gaye, but more “Got To Give It Up” than “What’s Going On?” – this is a voice in search of someone to connect with.

There frankly isn’t much to say about D’Angelo’s lyrics alone; set down in print, they can look pretty well like anyone’s stock repartee of soul parlance. The magic is how the contours and U-bends of his voice and the already surrendered music negotiate the words and enable feelings to be expressed which the words in themselves could not hope to contain. So the title track outlines his desire; “Alright” admits that “we may have an understanding, but that’s okay,” arguments will always be overcome by our deeper love; “Jonz In My Bonez” has a slightly less malleable rhythm and gives D’Angelo the opportunity to soliloquise on his fundamental uncertainty about his role in the world and in life; “Me And Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine” expresses passion for a love which is as yet unrequited; while “Shit Damn Motherfucker” manages even to make adultery and murder sound strangely seductive. Here D’Angelo finds his wife in bed with his best friend, is more bewildered than angry; when he shoots both of them, he continues to sound confused, as though he had to do it to conform to the soul ballad template. Even as the police lead him away to the fadeout, you still feel that when he whimpers, “Why am I wearin’ handcuffs?” he’s in the middle of S&/orM congress with his wife.

The second side is of a much more straightforwardly positive frame of mind; here D’Angelo is content simply to celebrate love. “Smooth” is a selfless song where he has doubts about his own sexual capabilities and is overwhelmed by the Other’s patience and receptiveness (“How can you stand to take things so slow?”). The cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” is leisurely and blissful; hear how those backing vocals lope half a beat behind the rhythm to emphasise the feeling. “When We Get By” has an ineffable swing (and the vaguest of psychedelic references in “chocolate lemonade” unless that’s meant to be a double entendre) with a laconic lyric (“You scratch mine/And I’ll scratch your back sugar”). “Lady” is a sumptuous burner which celebrates unequivocal love, while the final “Higher” sees he and the Other ascending “higher than the sky above” and is almost gospel sex (“Please give us strength Lord to fight our battles/and we can walk on the streets of gold”) which for the first time on this album acknowledges the outside world. In summary, it is a fairly comprehensive musical analysis of the various stages of the positive aspects of love; not ignoring the existence of negative ones, but with enough faith to know that these can always be overcome if the positive is strong enough.

It was necessary to caress the brake a little; compared to the primary-coloured garish in-your-faceness of contemporaneous R&B in the mid-‘90s, this suggested a different, possibly slower but more colourful and varied route for soul music to take. If Prince were the Coltrane of nu-soul, D’Angelo would be the Wayne Shorter; simultaneously more oblique yet in a strange way also more direct.

It took some while for D’Angelo to follow this up; his next album, Voodoo, did not appear for another five years. Right from its opening, the grooves are audibly much harder, much more assertive. As with Brown Sugar, the first track “Playa Playa” opens with studio chatter, but here it is less amiable and more ambitious, perhaps more ominous. Here, for the first time, D’Angelo feels that he has to throw down a gauntlet. “I see right through your riddle…dirt’s our secret weapon…we came here 2 rip shit/strip U of your clout.” No seduction going on here. No perceptible Other, either, apart from The World In General. That is emphasised by the brutal psychedelic groove of “Devil’s Pie,” all stuttering, pointillistic beats and swooning guitar and synth fragments. With the opening line “Fuck the slice we want the pie” this is indeed D’Angelo against the World. “Demons screaming in my ear/All my anger all my fear/If I holler let them here/In this spinning sphere.” It is his Declaration of Principles for which he is evidently prepared to die: “With eighty five dumb and blind/There can be no compromise.” And there is no shelter in love here.

Love, or a variant of it, enters on “Left & Right,” but this is equally brutal and uncompromising. “So what U want?” D’Angelo asks. “Smack your ass, pull your hair/And I’ll even kiss U way down there/U know that I will/Think I won’t?” The rap by guests Method Man and Redman seem to undermine everything that D’Angelo has built up previously (“I’ll fuck you, brown sugar, in front of that fibreglass window”).

Suddenly, it stops, as though D’Angelo realises that he has gone too far, and we return to the grooves familiar from Brown Sugar with the next two tracks. However, on “The Line” his love is still confused, equating orgasm with revolution (“I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger/I’m gonna pull it and we gon’ see what the deal…the pressure is on/From every angle political 2 personal/Will I hang or be left hangin’, will I fall off/Or will it be bangin’?/I say it’s up 2 the man upstairs”). And on “Send It On” there is no ambiguity at all: “Send it up/send it through/sent it right back 2 U.” The music is seductive but the lyrics almost anti-sexual in their expressed desire.

On “Chicken Grease” an electronic fog smothers his voice as he goes through a bizarre dance routine which may or may not be a sociological metaphor. Back to musically familiar ground on “One Mo’Gin” with a sideways rhythm which seesaws between, and can be interpreted as either, a slow 6/8 ballad and 85 bpm midtempo hip hop propulsion, where D’Angelo sees a former flame and, although now with another, misses what they had and wants to renew it. On “The Root” he is on his own and not liking it: “I need someone 2 hold me/Bring me back 2 life, B4 I’m dead…from the alpha of creation/2 the end of all time” over a stealthy, stalking rhythm with odd guitar tangents shooting off from it, and a vocal which floats in complete disregard of metre or bar lines. Some things are more important. This in turn is rejected and his refreshed self is reflected on the livelier (and played by a live band) “Spanish Joint.”

The cover version on this album is of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” and it is cut from exactly the same cloth as his version of “Cruisin’” – benign and welcoming. The bebop horn lines which close the track signify an increasing warmth in the music.

“Greatdayndamornin’/Booty” is luscious and perhaps of everything discussed here closest to Marvin Gaye; lots of echo-laden vocal lines interweaving a web of comfort and solace (the introductions to “Alright” and “Lady” from Brown Sugar have the same effect). Then the album climaxes with “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” a soul-delic surfeit of emotion which is worthy to stand beside the Prince who was capable of “Condition of the Heart” and “Adore” – here a fully reborn D’Angelo pleads, prays to the Other, asks for understanding, for love without conditions. And in the final 90 seconds of the song the ambience escalates dramatically as a chorus and his lead voice suddenly swing into magnified focus and proclaim his love and worship of the Other in torrents of ecstatic rain…a more straightforward equivalent of Lewis Taylor’s “Damn,” and as with that masterpiece, this ends with an abrupt cut-off.

But the album ends, not with resolution, but with a move forward; the track “Africa” wherein D’Angelo suddenly turns to face the World, this time with the intent of engaging with it. And it is the most avant-garde thing he’s done to date; separate lines of percussion, guitars and vocals which are never quite in synch with each other and are therefore dislocating and disturbing. The track is bookended by rootless ambient keyboard/electronic lines; yet again, back to the swirling waters, back underground to search for the maternal body as all children end up doing. The view of life as an ongoing loop is underlined by the final, brief sequence where the whole album appears to be winding backwards at high speed; an old life flashing before the eyes of a new one.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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