Greetings, Glancers! If you’ve been following this series you’ll know I’ve had a torrid time of it. The quest to find an album I genuinely enjoy has been difficult and any fans of the albums I have dismissed likely think I’m a complete tool bag. I’m hoping the tide will change today, because it’s Marvin Gaye. Without really loving anything I’ve heard by Gaye, I’ve liked it all and his smooth vocals, Motown melodies, and political sensibilities all point towards me liking this album. I imagine this will be a straight down the line collection of hits with no bullshit – many of the albums I’ve listened to recently seem to have so much acclaim because of cultural relevance or influence rather than how good the music actually is and while I already understand the relevance of this I just want to hear some decent tunes.
What Do I Know About Marvin Gaye: I soul/r’n’b/rock vocalist who also dabbled in some session music and writing jobs for other artists before finally finding solo success. I think he was murdered, like a few other notable contemporaries. I know quite a few of his bigger hits.
What Do I Know About What’s Going On: I know that it is frequently listed among the best albums ever by pretty much any critic or publication you can find. I assumed that it contained most of his well known hits, but looking at the tracklist there are only two I know. Also, I see it’s another 9 track non-metal album. Interesting.
What’s Going On: We open with some spoken voices before a brief and sultry brass flits over some soothing beats. Then that glorious voice takes over, allowing room to feel the plaintive lyrics. The song takes a loose approach to standard verse chorus structure and the violins quietly compliment the vocal melody. The song obviously has an important message for what was going on at the time but it’s a prescient one for today’s chaotic world too and I find it interesting that the song isn’t played more often.
What’s Happening Brother: This leads in directly from the previous song and feels very Motown in its approach – a lot of string and brass, backing female vocals, a bit of a groove. Lyrically it treads the same paths as the opener, with more questioning and pleading, and even references the first song by name leading me to think that this song was originally an outtake of the first, eventually expanded into its own thing. Musically similar too, it is brief enough that any repetition doesn’t get the time to take hold.
Flyin High: I like the ‘prog’ approach so far – each song bleeding into the next without a pause. This is slower and more free-form. Interesting bass doing its own thing in the background while the strings set an airy tone. The voice is smooth and angelic as you would expect, and melodically it reminds me of someone like Jeff Buckley – just jazzy enough without being needlessly complex or off-putting, but never reaching a peak and I assume staying quite uniform on purpose.
Save The Children: This blends in from the last one too, nice layered vocals between the spoken part, the backing ahhs, and the accompanying sung call and repeat. I assumed that format was going to just be an intro but it seems the entire song is going this way which is pretty cool. Unusual at least. It’s still political, this time questioning how future generations are going to cope with the fallout of current actions. Each line comes with a new instrument or slight twist on what came before – keeping that interesting tone where it’s uniform but free-form at the same time. At least until the final minute or so where the music reaches an instrumental crescendo before a more funky commercial climax.
God Is Love: That little commercial piece becomes the intro of this one. I had/have no idea of Gaye’s religion but this seems pretty straight forward and a liberal take on what should be the most important tenet of Christianity, or any religius or moral group – love one another. Musically it isn’t much of a stretch from anything else we’ve heard.
Mercy Mercy Me: This comes straight in from the last one and its power and quality are as clear today as they ever were. It’s the most obvious hit on the album with its infectious hook and swaying swagger groove. No matter how many times I hear it, that ending is still unexpected and seems to take the song off in a new and bizarre and downbeat direction.
Right On: Now, this is funny to me because the intro instantly makes me think of Anything Goes by Guns N Roses – a song about all sorts of kinky sex. I’ve no way if that was intentional but it wouldn’t surprise me. There’s quite a bit of piano and some sort of flute going on and it feels like a smooth backing track for a chilled gathering. There’s still a cultural message if not quite a sermon and again it has the loose melodic quality where Gaye puts down vocal riffs over the rhythm section instead of following a set pattern. Just when it seems like the piano is going to really come in and go off on one the song shifts to an even more quiet and smooth section. The sax tears off a couple of face melters but doesn’t hit a full stride. Just as it looks like the song will fade it, a thumping beat kicks in and the instruments jam on. I don’t know if this really needs to be over seven minutes long – I would have cut it somewhat but it mostly avoids needless repetition and stretching.
Wholy Holy: Continuing the no pause between tracks of the first half, this one blends in but quickly establishes a hymnal quality. There are more strings and sparkling and twinkling sounds, more religious lyrics, more hope, and more free-form vocal riffs. The message of love stands, if we love then violence and bullshit drops.
Inner City Blues: We’re at the closer already and it has flown in. Piano and hand drums, then more drums. It’s a little more funky than what has come already, but very much in the same format musically and lyrically. I like the double vocals and it’s a nice approach to old school blues. Some nice breaks and screams and recalls to previous songs.
What Did I Learn: That this didn’t contain the load of hits I assumed it would and that it was more in line with jazz that the Motown hit-making machine. It’s a very consistent album with not much variety from one song to the next. Normally I don’t like that sort of thing and rely on heavy melodic variance to differentiate songs. The album builds upon this by removing the standard silence between tracks so that the whole thing feels like one long piece.
Does It Deserve Its Place In The Top 1000 Albums Of All Time: On sheer cultural power alone it’s a yes but I would have preferred a couple more hits. I realize coming from me – I am fairly anti-commercial and listen to all manner of noise – that this statement is contradictory, but certain genres lend themselves to commercialism more than others. The songs I knew are bonafide classics but I’d need a few more listens for any of the other songs to take hold – on the surface quite a few blend too much into the other for me to identify each one specifically. Taking on board the sales and the acclaim and the fact that the two big ones at the very least are still loved today, it deserves its spot.
Colin Larkin’s Ranking: 39/1000
Let us know in the comments what you think of What’s Going On – is it one of your favourites, were you around when it was released?