Review Summary: Right on, Marvin.
The year is 1971. At this time in Marvin Gaye’s career, he is better known as a pop singer than the sensual soul singer most view him as today. With singles like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and his famous duet with Tammi Terrell “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin was one of the figureheads of Detroit’s Motown Records. Motown had a fruitful decade during the 60’s releasing many successful singles while collaborating with artists such as the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. The early 70’s saw Marvin, and many other members of the Motown camp, mature as artists and make their own niches in the music world. What’s Going On
was a turning point in Marvin’s career and is arguably the best soul and R&B album ever recorded.
What’s Going On
opens with the lead single and title track “What’s Going On.” The song enters with a smooth saxophone riff and jangly guitar playing in the background. When Marvin’s beautiful tenor voice comes into the mix, his lyrical content depicts the discontent of the citizens in the United States at the time. This is a change of pace for his songwriting because most of the songs he recorded during the 60’s were love songs. The lyrics on second song off the album, “What’s Happening Brother,” touch upon more issues associated with the United States like the escalating war in Vietnam and racial inequality. What’s Going On
can be considered a concept album because the themes of social awareness are so strong throughout the duration of the album. On “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin sings about the harm mankind is inflicting on the Earth and his message comes across strong with his passionate vocals. On first listen, his sincerity on some of the songs might seem comical. For instance, on “Save the Children” Marvin belts out “Save the babies!” at one moment in the song and is one of the more cliché moments on the album, but his conviction in all of the songs on What’s Going On
cannot be argued.
In addition to the great lyrics on What’s Going On
, the music being played on the album is exceptional. The singing from Marvin is excellent, as to be expected, and the harmonies that show up frequently throughout the album are absolutely stunning. The harmonies are one of the best qualities of What’s Going On
because they help the music reach an almost transcendental level, like on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The band behind Marvin is fantastic laying down solid rhythms and grooves. The seventh track, “Right On,” showcases the band at their best with fiery jazz flute, robust piano playing, and subtle warm bass. The production on What’s Going On
creates a smoky atmosphere for most of the album and really draws attention to Marvin’s vocals and harmonies.
Everything on What’s Going On
is so well executed which makes this album simply extraordinary. This album sends a strong message while backed with remarkable music. What’s Going On
is a complete experience and showed the world that Marvin is an artist, not just a pop singer. After the release of this album, Marvin’s career entered a new phase. Two years after What’s Going On
, he came out with Let’s Get It On
and made him into a bonafide love singer. What’s Going On
is not only an incredible album, but served as a transition phase for Marvin Gaye’s career. This album has just about everything you could look for in a musical experience from this genre.