Review Summary: Maxwell returns with the best soul album of 2009.
In 2008, when he somewhat unsuspectingly graced the BET award with an understated cover of Al Green's “Simply Beautiful”, Maxwell made his comeback in much the same way as he announced his arrival. Like on the Kate Bush cover that solidified him, Maxwell's performance was confident and convincing. Also really, really good. A year later, closing an 8 year gap between albums, BLACKsummers'night
hit shelves, reviving the neo-soul scene his previous release, 2001's Now
, helped define.
Perhaps the most captivating thing about Maxwell is his understated, quiet confidence. He has an intangible energy that allows him to convey enthusiasm and vigour oftentimes without raising his voice, and this is captured wonderfully on the dynamically written and produced BLACKsummers'night
. Of course Maxwell is also inclined to add some funk to his soul, a dynamic shift that propels the record to higher ground, allowing the 36 year old singer to find a healthy medium between Vandross and Mayfield. What allows this is not just Maxwell's versatility as a vocalist, but also the timing, variation and execution of the instruments. Lead singles “Pretty Wings” and “Bad Habits” demonstrate the diverse use of horns on the album, with the former using brass to accentuate and pepper the music while the latter employs them as a means of changing the songs aesthetic altogether, transitioning it from a breath-y crooner to a high-energy pop song. And it all feels organic. The often simultaneous use of guitars, horns, pianos and organs rarely clash. Instead they drift in and out of prevalence, interplaying and interlocking with the metronomic drums and groove-heavy bass. Though the instruments often go all at once, BLACKsummers'night
is never loud.
A prime example of how the album uses each instrument differently, “Help Somebody” bases much of its melody off of the initial interplay between piano and drums, using the bass percussively and the guitar as an accentuation while the horns enter only occasionally as kick starts to choruses and vocal runs. On the flipside, the slow-burning “Playing Possum” ignores horns almost exclusively until it begins to taper off. If any thing could solidify the talent of Maxwell's backing band, the album's 2:42 denouement “Phoenix Rise” is it. Capping off the album's surprisingly short 37 minute runtime, the track is a synth-ridden, drum and bass heavy instrumental jam. Of course none of this would matter were it not for Maxwell's ability as a vocalist and if anything he's refined his talents since he first struck the scene with his falsetto-driven cover of “This Woman's Work”. His control is remarkable, allowing him to weave between his false and regular tenor with recognizable ease, something that post-production and multi-tracking makes evident in tracks such as “Fistful of Tears”, which ends with the singer complimenting and playing off of his own vocal runs until fading out.
Saying Maxwell has hit the ground running is more than an understatement. The first album in a series of three (all with the same title, differing only in capitalizations) BLACKsummers'night
isn't just the soul album of the year, but also a top-tier addition to the canon of a once-fizzling scene. The last year and a half has seen soul fans graced with everything from Erykah's left-of-centre Baduisms and Georgia Anne Muldrow's afro-soul-hop experimentations to Raphael Saadiq's more orthodox heralds to Motown, but BLACKsummers'night
has set a higher standard, one we can only hope D'Angelo's James River
and Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Pt. 2
can come close to meeting.