Maxwell: “BLACKsummer’s Night”

maxwell-blacksummers-night

Plenty of young rockers cite Radiohead as an influence these days, but an R&B crooner like Maxwell? Hearing him namedrop Yorke and Co. raises an eyebrow, especially when it turns out that he’s not kidding. On his new album BLACKsummer’s Night, Maxwell constructs soulful swirls in much the same way Radiohead creates their music: With a composerly sense of dynamics, centering everything around a brief musical phrase that’s looped over and over again, various elements added and subtracted, subtle variations in texture, building gradually into some wonderful monument of inspired patience and slow-burning grandeur.

It’s not a new way to approach R&B; it’s a time-tested formula, employed by everyone from Marvin Gaye to D’Angelo. (A few fleeting moments on this album bear passing familiarity to a smoother cousin of D’Angelo’s Voodoo.) But if it isn’t new, it is unconventional; in the 2000s, R&B is constructed not around loops, but hooks, tailor-made for ringtones. Maxwell is too classy for that, his sense of history too thorough: He approaches his music with a jazzman’s sense of ebb and flow, a classicist bent that has much in common with vintage soul music, less with the ringtone jams of today.

BLACKsummer’s Night is the first Maxwell album in close to a decade, and supposedly the first in a series. The next two installments are reported to delve further into the artist’s gospel roots and various other forms of soul music. This one is a consolidation of his strengths, and that’s what it should be: Technically, given his long absence, this surely must be considered his comeback album. But it sounds as though he never went away; his art is doggedly untouched by trends and shifting interests in R&B. And at just nine songs– the final one is really just an instrumental coda– it’s startlingly compact. Maxwell doesn’t need to remind us of how great he is through some marathon showing of bombast or verbosity. These songs do the job just fine.

The reason for his extended absence, he says, is that he wanted to make a break from show business, to experience normal, everyday human life. I think he accomplished his goal. BLACKsummer’s Night is music made by a fully-formed, grown-up individual. It is neither a breakup album or a late-night seduction album, strictly speaking; rather, it’s a song cycle about the emotions involved with a relationship that doesn’t last. It begins with raw need and pleading desire in “Bad Habit,” moves into the stark anger and disappointment of “Cold,” then delves into both sorrow and spiritual awakening for the duration. There are numerous forms of expression along the way, from the biting humor in “Cold” to the bleeding-heart want of “Love You” to the chilling finality of “Playing Possum,” which is either about metaphorical or literal death.

By the way, I think there are two meanings to the emphasis on BLACK in the album’s title. It’s a dark album, to be sure, though there is joy and compassion along the way, and humanity in every note. But it’s also a reclamation of black music, just as D’Angelo’s album was meant to be nine years ago. This isn’t R&B for the clubs, but for late-night meditation. It’s spiritual and substantive, not materialistic or false. It finds its roots not in the present but in musical idioms that have proven themselves lasting, and it builds on their legacy rather than emulate their sound. The excellence involved here is so uniform, and so unpretentious, that it’s initially easy to miss. But the music sinks in, it works its magic, and it becomes clear that Maxwell is the guardian of an old flame, and it burns brightly even amidst the shadows of his BLACKsummer’s Night.

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