Let’s get it on. Two figures have embedded this phrase into our very cultural fabric. The first is that referee guy from MTV’s Celebrity Death Match. The second is Mr. Marvin Gaye. As soon as that randy little guitar line plays and Marvin’s soulful, sexual voice comes on, oh it’s on.
Riding high after the politically charged, hugely successful What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye returned to more the relatively more simple matters of the flesh. And with the title track in 1973’s Let’s Get It On, Marvin starts things strong. Everything about the song sets the mood. There’s the coy, shy guitar throughout the beginning. There’s Marvin’s voice seducing with every syllable. Naturally, there’s a saxophone to mingle with his vocal work.
And yet somewhere, Marvin loses his way. Even in that very song, Marvin loses me. In order to review this album, I tried to pinpoint where I just stopped caring. I thought about it, aside from huge Marvin Gaye fans, no one can really sing along with the rest of that song, just that one charged line, and maybe a few more. Marvin’s vocal performance through the whole song, no, through the whole album is admirable.
Ah, I’ve reached the moment. It’s actually when the saxophone comes in, as Marvin sings “There’s nothing wrong with me.” The saxophone is fine. But along with the saxophone there is the introduction of a string section. This string section is present throughout the rest of the album, the music really supporting Marvin. As “Let’s Get It On” continues, I don’t really mind. The song is still saved, relying on the sexual energy created from the introduction, but there is no movement.
This lack of movement as Marvin sings along to drums and a string section plagues the rest of the album. I stop noticing when songs end, when they begin. First of all, Marvin stops really singing a song. Instead he starts just singing, the difference is crucial. In the beginning of a new song, he’ll sing the title of the song, vary that a bit. And that’s what he does for the rest of the song. Backing tracks come in every so often, but Marvin sings and sings, varying his voice as he sings the same things over and over. And then songs end, completely arbitrarily, as though they had a timer going.
I tend to zone out completely, no matter how I try to focus, just waiting for the song to actually begin. After “Keep Gettin’ It On,” the Motown legend James Jamerson joins Marvin and the gang on bass, starting with “Come Get to This.” “Come Get to This” is a return to actual songs, rather than the soul stream-of-conscious that had been going on since the middle of “Let’s Get It On.” The drums pick up, the backing vocals lead somewhere, descending with the drums. Jamerson’s bass rumbles along. Unfortunately, Marvin’s voice is stuck in the previous mode, not really creating a complete melody from the start of the verse to the finish.
And by “Distant Lover,” we’re back to…bleh. I find myself just listening to James Jamerson, as a wannabe bassist, to keep myself interested throughout the song. But as Marvin’s back-up singers repeat “Lover, lover” I cannot help but grimace. This has been going on too long.
There is a trumpet solo in “Distant Lover.” I don’t know if it’s good or not, as with the rest of the album, it’s enveloped in this sea of syrupy strings. At least Jamerson is enjoying himself over in his little corner. The drums and dreamy guitar work their way into “You Sure Love to Ball,” but the strings still dominate, going up and up with Gaye repeating “You sure love to ball” over and over.
Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On has the free feeling of a jam band, without the energy. The album shamelessly relies on his very good voice and the strings that complement it for only so long. Playing “Let’s Get It On” when my friends are around always gets a chuckle, sometimes we even croon along with the first cry of “Let’s get it on.” But then Marvin oozes into the background.
Recommended Tracks: Let's Get It On