Review Summary: Sounds like new.9 of 9 thought this review was well written
Context aside, What's Going On
still soars gracefully through the ruffled clouds above us, even after nearly 42 years of wear and tear.
It's a testament to Marvin's nimble craftsmanship, really, and perhaps even his maturity, that a record so steeped in the cultural lore of one time period can manage to sound this timeless decades after its release. Perhaps it has to do with how immaculately he wraps his subtle, nuanced sensibilities around a topic that often calls for brash and bombastic excess. Yeah, it's a protest record, sure, but it succeeds not because its able to regurgitate soaked up picket sign slogans and pat itself on the back for contributing to the movement; no, it succeeds precisely because it manages to transcend the activist furor, to meld it into something tempered, potent, supple, and undeterred by the behemoth social barriers buried deep underneath our sidewalks, threatening us with their absoluteness. It's painful. It's powerful. It's hard to put your finger on. My friend's dad used to call it "grown folk music." I'm not sure if I'm old enough to appreciate the descriptor.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that, in the traditional sense, What's Going On
really isn't a protest album at all, but more so just an album about being fed up -- fed up with the hurt, with the war, with addiction, with the injustice that coagulates in our ghettos, in our homes, on the TV screen. It flourishes only to wash back into a distanced resolve, brewing but calm, like the soundtrack of a million hand-wringing moms and dads watching a race riot unfold from the comfort of their sofas. There's an oppressive melancholy that looms over it all -- an unconscionable, unmistakable feeling that everything is falling apart right before our very eyes and that something needs to be done to stop it -- but what's most important is that that sentiment extends far past the politics that originally propelled the album into the public spotlight. Simply put, the cuts here conjure up a kind of measured ache, spawning from decades upon decades of unresolved tension, that slices just as deep personally as it does socially: Marvin's own failing relationships and troubles with depression feel just as essential to the soundscapes he conjures as the riots happening around him, and it's that excruciating, familiar sense of hurt that he exudes, that grounding in a more distinctly universal type of pain, that allows his concepts to connect so freely and so indiscriminately. You can feel him fight back the exhaustion, the nostalgia, the hope for better days. It all feels so close, so anguished, and so uniquely human
that regardless of your proximity to his struggles, you can't help but fight it back with him.
The most common criticism that What's Going On
seems to weather is that the brilliance of its singles dwarfs the impact of the rest of the album -- an album which, at times, can often come across as shapeless and unfocused. To be fair, it is true that in many sections it finds itself succumbing to a string lineup that can only be described as "noticeably chintzy" -- but even so, non-single tracks like "What's Happening Brother" and "Wholy Holy" grow warmer after repeated listens and reveal astonishing depth, both conceptually and compositionally. "Wholy Holy" revels in its somber, jazzy subtleties and serves as a perfect prelude to the funky, mellowed out grooves of "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)"; likewise, "What's Happening Brother" uses its breezy, nostalgia-soul atmospherics to great effect as an interlude between the monumental "What's Going On" and the hazy, falsetto drenched "Flying High (In the Friendly Skies)". The song cycle structure of the album gives tracks leeway to flow in and out of one another at a whim, and the end result is this majestic, smooth-as-butter suite that manages to not only put forth a complex and varied emotional palette, but to do so cohesively, as a unified statement -- each track segues into its successor, building and layering sounds on top of sounds, seamlessly weaving together a tightened musical narrative. It's expertly crafted, unfathomably lush, and diligently restrained, with the kind of cool-water composure and low-key exuberance that seem to come so effortlessly to Marvin's productions.
Later albums would see him tackling love, sex, and the fallout of a marriage gone awry, each equally with the same textured nuance that made '60s Marvin the magnificently effective crooner that he was. But What's Going On
represented possibly the most important progression in his entire career -- in one fell swoop, he proved that he could write challenging, sonically experimental records and then sell them as if they were as commercial as anything else. The rest of his '70s output would follow this artistic streak to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, and as time went on, even his worst received material would see some semblance of vindication -- but no single album of his would go on to accumulate the sheer multitude of accolades that What's Going On
would eventually see. Motown gone political? Sure, you could sum it up like that if you'd like. But it doesn't do the record justice. In reality, it's a sprawling, reflective soul masterpiece that transcended its predecessors and all of its expectations; a complex, beautiful piece of work that refuses to be narrowed down, hindered by its context, or dirtied up by the thick clouds of marijuana smoke it coasts through, high in the sky, burning brightly as it revolves, soaring steadily. It's above us. And yet...it feels all too close to home.