Review Summary: What makes a perfect album?
Is it the world saying that it's perfect? Well, when you Google "best albums of all time" the first link's #1 entry is What's Going On
. In fact, you will find it on numerous "best albums of all time" lists from all over the world. It has a 100 on Metacritic and a 96 on AOTY, and it is the 5th most acclaimed album of all time according to acclaimedmusic.net. It has been endlessly and deservedly praised for five decades now and most likely will for decades to come. It's also certified platinum by the RIAA. So, by all accounts, if there is such a thing as objectivity in ranking quality, this is objectively one of the best albums ever made. I don't think there is, though. I don't know anyone who has listened to much music who agrees that critic rankings and consumer sales targets determine how good something is, especially to say it does so with certainty. There is just so much amazing art completely ignored by these circles (including the extremely wide circle of "the general public," as even the most poptimistic among us probably wouldn't define number of sales as a measure of quality) that it is impossible to argue in good faith that there is such a thing as objective quality, unless you're a really boring person. So even though What's Going On
has all the correct markers for flawlessness, that doesn't actually define it.
Maybe it has more to do with beauty, or perhaps importance. A simple listen is all it takes to prove that it is beautiful. Yes, one could
argue that this is ugly music, in the same way you could
argue that Starry Night
is unattractive, but I don't think there's much of a point in entertaining that kind of needless contrarianism. Marvin Gaye has a positively gorgeous voice, and this is the best accompaniment in his career, including a serious string section, with 9 violin players alone. Sheer numbers can't really show beauty, and any words I write aren't going to do justice to the striking power this record holds. As such, I don't know how to argue this besides "just trust me," but maybe reading more about other themes will help convince you. On the other adjective mentioned, it's definitely important. This was the first LP Gaye made that felt like an album as an entire project, rather than a collection of songs packaged together to sell as well as possible. He was given the freedom to create his own project for the first time after the unexpected success of the title track, and it redefined what Motown meant, beyond just the trademark "Motown Sound." In fact, it redefined what soul as a whole meant. It helped influence countless artists in many genres, was one of the first concept albums of its kind, and inspired numerous people to simply be better, more loving people.
There's a more spiritual take on perfection, which would fit this record's God-worshipping ethos - that it is defined by improvement and growth. The clearest way to define it that way is to use comparison. Of course, What's Going On
is visibly a step or ten above his past records (although they are all good and worth listening to, particularly his collaborations with Tammi Terrell), but an even clearer connection is to a previous mix of the album. The Detroit mix, easily accessible on streaming platforms for curious readers, is almost identical, with all the same songs, same vocal takes, same to the very main melodic notes. Because of this, it's basically perfect as-is. If I were to rate it numerically, I would have given it a 5 too, or at least something very close. But it's not as good as this final version - the transitions aren't as clean, which makes all the difference. And the sound is just significantly fuller. Most of all, it sounds like they took a perfect album, and then harmonized with the whole thing. The authors of What's Going On
didn't stop at a fully realized soul concept LP when that idea was unheard of at best and controversial at worst. Instead, they just kept going, ascending to one of the best musical projects ever created.
I think we're getting closer to defining perfection in music, but there's more to examine. There's something to be said for achieving one's goal. As I mentioned, with this project, Gaye was attempting to create a full-length concept album along the lines of the title track. This intent was raw, genuine, meaningful. He wanted to create something that could heal the world. Obviously, the whole "why can't we all just love each other?" thing can rub people the wrong way, and for good reason. It's a centrist attempt at healing without any of the work that needs to go into it. But Gaye doesn't just
do that, and that's the key. Naming certain social issues and specific actions that need to be taken helps turn this into less of an unhelpful commentary on how we all just ought to be nice to each other and more of a cry to above - the people above him in power, and, most of all, to God. The lines "save the babies!" and "Jesus is my friend" are often called out as evidence that the former is more of where this lies, but it doesn't matter how cheesy something is if it's real, honest, and surrounded by real work to make a better world, starting off with a better record. Sure, when isolated, these lines are a little much, but they feel so earned when fit between songs about the harm the Vietnam War caused and the need to reduce climate change (at a time when this was not a hot topic, particularly in popular music). The conclusion to the album is a dark message discussing the police brutality and financial ruin in poor Black communities. So while there is bliss in What's Going On
, it's earned, as a victory lap for the harder goals achieved around it.
Maybe it has more to do with context. After all, we are defined by who we surround ourselves with. I've addressed some of the conditions surrounding this album's release already, but there's something to be said about the people who were closest to Gaye at this time. His father, Marvin Gay Sr. (Gaye added the "e") was a minister who frequently physically abused Gaye throughout his childhood. His mother was by all accounts kind and Gaye admired her enormously. He effectively believed she allowed him to survive his father's abuse. At the age of 24, he married Anna Gordy Gaye, who was 17 years older than him. The marriage turned abusive, with physical and verbal abuse from Anna eventually reflected by Marvin. In 1971, eight years into his marriage, he released What's Going On
. Listening to it now, it feels like a rare moment of clarity in a confused, messy discography, full of missed potential and bitter anger. Unfortunately, this moment would not last. Two years later, at 34, he began his relationship with the 17-year-old Janis Hunter. After raping her, marrying her, and abusing her, he was tragically killed by his own father in the midst of an argument. I celebrate this project not as a celebration of Gaye as a person, who may have been a fine human being at the time of its release but was certainly not even close to a good one by his death, but in spite of its flawed creator. The context of Gaye as a person is tragic, filled with abuse, where this album is somehow glowing with light and love.
This illumination may come from reaching out to more than just his own experiences, but those of the people he loved. Mother, brother, and father are some of the first words on the title track, and family resonates throughout the record. His mother's kindness and his father's faith were both important to the album, of course. But his brother was important as well. It was to Frankie Gaye that Marvin tearfully explained "I didn't know how to fight before, but now I think I do." This set the stage for the political, devout, and meaningful What's Going On
. It is calm and energizing where the world is simultaneously dull and busy, bright even when covered in shadow.
The question of what makes a perfect album is at best a curiosity and at worst a contrivance for the flimsy construction of a poorly-thought-out review. But I think when all of the above points are addressed and each passed with flying colors, you can bet it qualifies - at least, as much as anything can qualify for such a subjective test. A popular, alluring, and significant step up from his past work, and an achievement in commentary, joy, and grace despite everything, What's Going On
made a simple disc into something everlasting.