The bad news is that there is no "Ascension" on this album. But is that really bad news? That song is classic and artists often spend their days chasing their successes rather than moving on and evolving. What this album represents is an evolution of Maxwell into an older, more pensive fellow and he carries that on to his most mellow release yet; a fantastic Soul record with shades of Marvin Gaye.
Good music is always there for you. When you are down and could use some company, there is the Blues. When you need to get amped up and feel rebellious, there's Rock. When you need to party, there's Hip-Hop. But when you need to groove, get in the groove, or get down, there's Soul. Case and point being Maxwell's classic and perhaps best-known song, "Ascension". Talk about a song full of life! That song to me was like the first smile from a girl that gave you a crush on her. It touched me and made me wish that I had a falsetto voice worthy enough to sing along without cats meowing or the windows in my car breaking. What I loved about that song was the live music approach it carried with it. There used to be so few popular Soul singers who used live instrumentation. It was also hype and mellow at the same time - which was something that blew my mind. Maxwell's subsequent albums followed suit, but I feel like the didn't necessarily evolve his sound too much. It's been a minute since Maxwell has made any new music and in that time it would seem that he has allowed himself to grow up a bit. Take a look at the album cover and the first thing you'll notice is that Maxwell's long locks are gone. He looks more grown up than before and I think that this album reflects that change. He has managed to keep the live instrumentation and mellowed out approach and on this album and brings with him a definite Marvin Gaye circa "Inner City Blues" influence. This album is less the smile that caused the crush and more the feeling of thankfulness you have when you think about how you are truly loved (high-hyperbole, I know).
At least Maxwell hasn't lost his penchant for oddly cased titles. This album is the first of three albums scheduled to come out in short order, each with variations in casing to the same title. This album emphasizes the BLACK while the next one will emphasize the SUMMER'S followed by the NIGHT. I'm not sure I follow the concept just yet, but the deluxe version of the album comes with a DVD that may shed some light on what the man is thinking. It really doesn't matter though, because the album stands on its own even without knowledge that is part one of three.
From the go-get you'll notice the Marvin Gaye-ish approach to the songs. The album opens with "Bad Habits" a song that starts out fooling you into thinking it's just another let's get busy song until the horns kick into schedule a slow build towards something a lot more exciting but decidedly mellow. This is followed up with another standout track "Cold" which to me is a good example of Maxwell's approach at it's best.
The majority of the album does not let up in terms of quality. There are a number of pretty ballads on the album (I know, I said "pretty") specifically "Pretty Wings" (even the title is pretty) and the outstanding "Stop The World".
I've mentioned it before but there is some great live instrumentation on the album. From the acoustic guitar work on "Stop The World" to the trumpet solo on "Pretty Wings" - there may be one name on the cover of the album, but there it is most definitely a band that makes the music.
I was also impressed by the writing on the album. Check out the following verse from "Help Somebody":
There's a moving inner peace that I'd love to see
Gotta raise my soul to tell you how I feel
Gotta listen to the tears that people cry for me
In a world that's so wild, fear creeps
'Cause when I get up to hear you, tears just fill my eyes
Now I know I gotta let selfishness subside
Tell em y'all
At only 9 tracks, you would think that the album would seem short. But there's enough goodness on it and I'd rather have quality over quantity. This is a very grown up sounding Soul record that doesn't seem to have many tracks that are going to break through to Top-40 radio. But for those of us who have followed Maxwell starting from the "Ascension" and "Sumthin'Sumthin'" days and who have grown up a bit ourselves as well - well, we'll have a lot to love about it.
I look forward to the next two funny-spelled releases. Welcome back, Maxwell.
4.111 out of 5
|1. Bad Habits (05:52)||5|
|2. Cold (04:03)||5|
|3. Pretty Wings (Uncut) (05:10)||4|
|4. Help Somebody (04:01)||4|
|5. Stop the World (03:56)||5|
|6. Love You (03:35)||4|
|7. Fistful of Tears (03:40)||3|
|8. Playing Possum (04:23)||3|
|9. Phoenix Rise (02:41)||4|