Review Summary: Reggae's poster child has a career beyond "Legend". Who knew.
It’s sort of a shame that Bob Marley’s best selling album isn’t exactly that -- an album that actually runs like an album. Legend
has sold over twelve million copies in the United States alone, and has secured a spot in places as diverse as your aunt’s dusty basement or on the top of a pot-smoking college student’s record collection. But it’s just a greatest hits compilation, and the character and free-natured spirit that truly defined Marley is missing from the fourteen songs that occupy my vinyl version of the album. So if you can’t get the true Marley experience from Legend
, where do you turn?
But let’s interrupt for a bit of backstory. Exodus
, commonly considered as Marley’s opus, was released in 1977, after Marley’s biggest commercial success in America, the mostly unremarkable Rastaman Vibration
. Marley finally managed to grow from being the cult hero of hazy-eyed frat boys to being a legitimate star, and easily the most successful and identifiable reggae star at the time. But the biggest event of this time period was in December of 1976. Two days before Marley was set to play the Smile Jamaica concert, which was organized by the prime minister of said country, Marley and his wife were gunned down inside his house. The two were seriously injured from the attack, but they were alive. And that’s all Marley needed. Two days later, Marley played the show injured.
If you needed another reason why this man is considered one of the greatest artists of all time, then there’s the music. Exodus
features a rejuvenated Marley, exuberant and happy to be alive. If Marley was feeling any gloomy thoughts about his near-death, they sure don’t show through here, and it sure doesn’t seem as if he was trying to confirm his heroic status with pretentiousness. Instead, Exodus
features a laid-back, stoned atmosphere that’s simultaneously funky and political. In fact, Marley might not even be the star here; that reward goes to the rhythm section of the Wailers. Bassist Aston Barrett plays a liquid-y bass that’s never overly technical, but it provides a dark, flat feel to the album. This, with brother Carlton Barrett’s superb drumming notwithstanding, leaves plenty of room for Marley and guitarist Junior Marvin to wander freely. The random soloing in “So Much Things to Say” provides texture to Marley’s foreboding political lyrics and impassioned vocal performance. His droning, distorted guitar solo in “Heathen” is also the closet Exodus
ever gets to being frantic. Added production elements, such as the trumpets in the seven-minute centerpiece and musical call-to-arms “Exodus” and the ballad-like keyboard work in “Turn Your Lights Down Low” provides a change of pace from the traditional reggae norm.
But this is still very much Marley’s album, and it shines through with his vocal talent and his lyrical content. Unlike other Marley albums, Exodus
shies away from the cryptic story-telling of previous albums and tells much more straight-forward stories. “Exodus”, like I stated previously, is a call for change, told most obviously in the verses: “Open up your eyes/look inside/are you happy with the life you’re living?” Marley touches on religious politics again with the transcendent closer “One Love/People Get Ready” and with the most rock-based track on the album, “Heathen”. But most of the time Marley simply tries to get away from the political messages that nearly almost took his life. “Jammin’” is a sultry sex tune, with a pulsating bass beat and soulful piano lines to add a fresh smell of nostalgia to the song, almost like a reggae Frank Sinatra, only with more of a funk. “Three Little Birds” holds the title of simply being the most uplifting song ever, and bonus track “Punky Reggae Party” takes notice of musical trends happening elsewhere in the world. Hell, the whole second half provides five of the greatest songs Marley ever written, and it might be the best side of vinyl ever created. Vocally, Marley provides almost a minimalist approach, never trying to reach out or prove his abilities with falsettos or whatever other vocal techniques people use. He just sings the songs, and he provides more emotion with his straight-forward vocal technique than anything Chris Martin or Bono could ever provide.
But that’s the thing with Exodus
-- it’s just so different
. It’s undoubtedly a classic album, and Marley’s legacy still lives on, whether its mentions of his name in movies such as Knocked Up or I Am Legend, or if it’s Time Magazine naming Exodus
the best album of the twentieth century. But Marley never really defined the music he was representing. His style of reggae isn’t really what was dominant in Jamaica at the time, and it doesn’t really sound a whole lot like any reggae that came before it. Exodus
is much more rooted in the blues and soul, has a little pinch of the British rock that much of his fanbase was also listening to, with a reggae façade thrown on top. But if Exodus
was straight reggae, it probably wouldn’t be as good as it is. While Wal-Mart may be content with stocking their “M” section with twenty copies of Legend
, fans who might be looking for the true experience must buy this. Hell, any fan of music should buy this. Exodus
is an album I can say is a classic, without any hesitation or second thoughts. It is that good.