Review Summary: Out with the old, in with the new.
It was 1982, and Bob Marley had been dead for just a year, but his untimely demise led to a shift in the popularity of reggae. While the 1970's were dominated by roots reggae artists, praising Jah and spreading the message of Rastafari, the 80's witnessed a distinct change in style of most mainstream reggae. Dancehall was now in its infancy and would soon take Jamaican music by storm. Gregory Isaacs, an already established name in reggae, released Night Nurse in 1982, and the decision to include electronic elements and secular lyrics showed the decline of roots reggae at the time, and the birth of dancehall.
Even from the first track, the eponymous Night Nurse, it is easy to see how Gregory managed to get the title of "most exquisite voice in reggae" from Milo Miles from the New York Times. His voice has an extremely delicate quality in it that suits the lyrical content of this album far more than it would in, say, a Peter Tosh album. Lovers and having a good time dancing are some of the themes of the songs on Night Nurse, and the crooning of Isaacs voice helps the lyrics have much more meaning than they really do. Even in songs such as Hot Stepper, when Gregory describes being falsely accused for a crime, "I'm wanted/They put a price on my head/So I, So I", his voice can make your heart melt at the desperate honesty that shines through. Although the majority of the album makes no reference to Rastafari, in Material Man Gregory's roots shine through and he denounces materialism, instead opting for giving praises "unto Rasta".
But a gorgeous voice on its own does not a reggae album make, and the instrumentation on Night Nurse is up to par with Gregory Isaacs himself. The backing, provided by the Roots Radics of Barrington Levy and Eek-A-Mouse fame and Wally Badarou on the Prophet synthesizer, does its job absolutely brilliantly. The backing music may seem different to a roots reggae fan, as the traditional horns are completely absent from this album, being replaced by laid back synth melodies and the occasional guitar lick. This provides a far more chilled and calm atmosphere to the album when compared to some of Bob Marley's releases, which had a strong brass section that helped illustrate the overwhelming power of his religious convictions.
The bassline on Objection Overruled stands out as catchy and well placed, and is one of the reason that I decided to pick up the bass guitar. The keyboards and synthesiser are executed brilliantly, and I would not be hard pressed in saying that this album stands out as one in which the keyboard is utilized perfectly in a reggae setting. The keyboardists have managed to get the golden mean between being faded into the background and demanding too much attention, drowning out the other music. For example, in the introduction to Material Man, the strange echoing keyboard sound just adds to the atmosphere of the song without venturing too far into the foreground of the music.
I can barely think of any criticisms for this masterpiece of music. The only one I could think of is that occasionally in some of the songs (notably Stranger in Town), some of the electronic effects can get pretty annoying and detract slightly from the atmosphere of the music. This is by no means a major criticism, as I doubt every listener would feel the same.
If I had to pick one song to recommend, a favourite, mine would personally be Cool Down the Pace. Starting with possibly the most relaxing guitar lick I have ever heard, counterpointed by an equally laid back keyboard melody, which eventually takes over throughout the song, popping up here and there in a light hearted sort of way to compliment Gregory's beautiful voice. The bassline throughout speaks of the beachside dance that the lyrics describe. This is definitely a song suited for summer evenings spent in joy. If you have a chance to hear the dub version (available on the cd re-issue), do it as 'cools down the pace' (see what I did there?) of entire song even more.
An absolutely amazing album, Night Nurse stands out as Gregory Isaacs' most highly rated and best known record, and with good reason; I've still got the songs bouncing round in my head.