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Friday, March 13, 2015

Marvin Gaye -- What's Going On

 photo 220px-MarvinGayeWhatsGoingOnalbumcover_zps57b0e4bd.jpg

As I mentioned in the intro to this series of Marvin Gaye reviews, What's Going On was my first foray into the more serious side of Marvin Gaye's music. After I spent years using lyrics from "What's Going On" and "Sexual Healing" in inappropriate situations, David Ritz's incredible Marvin Gaye biography, Divided Soul, convinced me to dive deeper into Gaye's discography. What's Going On seemed the logical place to start. My immediate reaction to the first twenty seconds of What's Going On, however, was not logical. As soon as Marvin's smooth voice glided out of the speakers, my body hurled itself into violent, uncontrollable sobs. What's Going On is a river of goodwill. I just wasn't prepared for that kind of emotion. That, and I guess I sometimes have strong bouts of what the kids call "the feels."
Anyway, What's Going On does not contain a question mark. It's a declarative, descriptive phrase. This album is literally about what Marvin Gaye is seeing around him in the year 1971. However, where most albums of this nature are critical and harsh, Gaye approaches the world around him with a sense of community and brotherhood, pleading for love and peace. The titular opening track contains voices of people joyfully greeting one another, and those remarkably good vibes are sustained throughout the first eight of What's Going On's nine songs. The album is told from the point of view of a returning Vietnam War vet, obviously inspired by Marvin's Vietnam War vet brother, Frankie. Thus, the perspective is that of someone glad to be home, yet troubled by the injustice they see around them. One can simply look at the track-listing to know what the topic of these songs are. "Save the Children" is about...saving the children, with Gaye belting out the line "save the babies" with tears in his compassionate voice. "God Is Love" is about God's love, and His command to His people to love one another. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is literally (HOLY CRAP I JUST USED THE WORD "LITERALLY" TWICE IN THE SAME REVIEW...IT'S LIKE THIS WAS WRITTEN BY A SORORITY SISTER) about the Earth's ecological situation. "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)" is a shockingly honest confession of Gaye's own drug problems, but delivered in such a fashion that the song is somehow not a downer, but almost uplifting, even as Marvin sings "And I go to the place where the good feelin' awaits me/ Self-destruction in my hand/ Oh Lord, so stupid minded/ Oh and I go crazy when I can't find it/ Well I know I'm hooked, my friend." Meanwhile, music provided by The Funk Brothers, as well as an ocean of strings, woodwinds, and brass, ooze positivity without ever becoming maudlin or losing that classic, head-bobbing beat. It's a miracle.
After those eight songs, "Inner City Blues" begins with a surprisingly dark and modern-sounding piano chord, as the beat kicks in, and Marvin suddenly becomes more distressed and desperate. He wanted to hang out and have a good time before, but now he just wants to holler. Taxes, crime, government mistreatment all become overwhelming, too much to bear. "Inner City Blues" the perfect climax for everything that came before, ending in a longingly hopeful, yet conflicted minute-long reprise of the opening title track.
Believe the hype. This is one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and a fine introduction to one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. It's also tear-bait for over-emotional weirdos with wildly unmanageable hair.

1971 Tamla
1. What's Going On 3:53
2. What's Happening Brother 2:43
3. Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky) 3:49
4. Save the Children 4:03
5. God Is Love 1:41
6. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) 3:16
7. Right On 7:31
8. Wholy Holy 3:08
9. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) 5:26

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