Let’s get this out of the way: Al Green’s new album, Lay It Down, is not a return to the form of his 1973 masterwork Call Me or the flawed genius of 1977’s The Belle Album. It doesn’t have a song on the level of “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness” or “Tired of Being Alone.” It simmers rather than burns. And with that said…
Lay It Down is a lovely album that is probably his best since he returned to recording secular music in the mid-90’s. Producers Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson (The Roots) and James Poser (Common, Erykah Badu) use Green’s and producer Willie Mitchell's mid-70’s sonic template, but rather than creating a completely retro-vibe, they do a fine job of making that classic Memphis sound feel modern and present. ?uestlove, the finest drummer of his generation, does an especially impressive job emulating the subtle restraint and groove of Stax drummer Al Jackson, Jr., one of the greatest drummers ever and a key component of Green’s greatest records in the 70’s. The Dap-King horns (of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones fame) punctuate the proceedings nicely without being obtrusive and the strings shimmer. It’s a recreation of a sound without being regurgitation of one.
But let’s face it – given that the songs, with the exception of “Just For Me,” do not exactly imprint themselves upon the brain, the album works for one main reason – that one-of-a-kind voice. Al has lost little-to-nothing of his range and to hear his falsetto whoops, gravelly assertions and sanctified moans is a slice of soul heaven. John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae appear on the album, adding a bit of marketing heft and little else; they all acquit themselves nicely and sound somewhat unnecessary. Bailey Rae, especially, lacks the sensuality to make "Take Your Time" something more than just nice. But hey - marketing is marketing.
There’s a phenomenon in record reviews that I call “Rolling Stones Syndrome.” Basically, it’s when a legend comes out with an album, the reviews say it’s the “best thing they’ve done since [insert classic album title here].” I can’t say for certain whether Lay It Down is the best album he’s done since his classic period. It's almost an impossible standard to live up to. But simply hearing Al Green sing well is one of the great pleasures of life on this planet – and for that alone, I’m happy to have Lay It Down to listen to.
1. Lay It Down (feat. Anthony Hamilton)
2. Just For Me
3. You’ve Got the Love I Need (feat. Anthony Hamilton)
4. No One Like You
5. What More Do You Want From Me
6. Take Your Time (feat. Corinne Bailey Rae)
7. Too Much
8. Stay With Me (By the Sea) (feat. John Legend)
9. All I Need
10. I’m Wild About You
11. Standing In the Rain