There's been a lot of talk lately about a narcissistic Al Green, about a guy who for a while seemed to outclass everybody in sight but who now indulges in vain onstage displays, as though singing were a sideline and stardom a license for self-adulation. Sounds like a description of a successful rock and roll band, doesn't it? Perhaps that's one reason hip listeners have been disturbed. The astonishing subtlety that can swell the surface of a tune with unspoken ripeness has given way, claim the disenchanted, to a mere episodic brilliance, to a tantalizing local flare no longer bound to a larger sense of drama.
Livin' for You, then, is an important release, a test of those recent impressions. Superficially it seems like the rest of Al's records - cool and slow, scrupulously arranged and produced by Willie Mitchell. Al is cast, typically, as a jazz soloist; his voice the ultimate mix of grit and grace, funk and delicacy.
And yet it takes many listenings to begin to grasp his genius afresh and even more to distinguish it from the time-wasting that's also present. His moods are firmer now, more explicit than they used to be, with a new and unfortunate potential to freeze into hues less various than before. That sense of something won by the end of a tune seems absent much of the time too, that sense of pain turned to joy through the controlled emotion one has grown to expect from him.
For every triumph on the album there's something surprisingly tame. "Home Again" and "Free at Last" are exquisite ballads in the full Green style, opening in a breathy mood and filling in the throat over the slow bounce of the band. Yet "Sweet Sixteen" and "My God is Real" - both overtly blues-flavored, oddly enough - are marked by stalling, not invention. They're the chief examples of that drift into the frozen; an almost shallow brooding hangs motionless over both songs from start to finish. Like "Beware," which begins as a compact ballad (but which is the longest cut on the album), they also feature a thick instrumental middle, a rarity in Mitchell's usually chaste handling of Al's steady Memphis studio crew.
An increased use of electric piano causes the thickness. In spite of the superb playing, it obscures the real bones of the back-up, Charles Hodges' organ and Tennie Hodges' guitar. The clear presence of their sparse counterpoint is essential to the settings best for Al's voice; settings like those on "Home Again," "Free at Last" and, especially, on "So Good to be Here." The chorus,
So good to be here,
So good to see your face
is a stunning arrival musically as well as lyrically, for Al enters it from his low range in the last bar of the verse, ascending the scale of the refrain itself half in tenor, half in soprano, mirroring the sense of the words in the music. "Unchained Melody," on the other hand, parodies that success. The ascent to the chorus is made directly, over the tops of the notes on the climbing scale rather than under and through them. The landing is one of effect, not of feeling.
"So Good to be Here" is the album's most memorable tune, prettier than the other songs and more perfect vocally. It is compactly dramatic, wasting not a phrase in its reach through three moods, from offhand ease to braided tautness, much like "Free At Last," its only real rival.
Such economy and supple strength, though, are strangely hard to come by. There's more freedom in Mitchell's arrangements than ever before, calling for instrumental fills and even a short guitar solo on "My God is Real." What the looser settings do, however, is take the tension out of the whole sound (tension in the sense of structure, not harmonically but texturally). Al's singing suffers accordingly because too much of the burden of development is taken - intentionally? - away from him.
Mitchell's past arrangements were almost static, with the Memphis Horns or the strings alone embellishing the late choruses of songs. It brought out Al's particular genius for understatement and suggestion (which even by itself has canonized him among r&b singers), for he chose to lay back in the rhythm and insinuate rather than blurt it all out and finish the tune breathlessly (like so many singers), having run out of things to say. But insinuation occasionally becomes an end in itself here. Al's brilliant phrasing is no longer in the exclusive service of building up a tune. Sometimes he's just plain marking time, like on the title cut or on "Let's Get Married" (where the sentiment of resignation seems, mercifully, more a pose than a real assertion).
Somehow Al's characteristic intensity is too often missing, except in a few jewelled instances. Even the strings don't sound as sweet as they used to, as though a slack atmosphere reigned during the sessions. The last moments of the album (an attempt to end the excessive vamp on "Beware") are jarring and upsetting, for they contain the kind of joking finale one associates with Leon Russell. The very last thing on the record is Al Green's laughter, which probably began when the musicians couldn't end the tune. But as a way to end an album, it's pretty weird - not even Beatles giggling but big ha-ha's. I think I'll stick with Let's Stay Together.
Originally published in Crawdaddy, March, 1974