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Album Review: Marvin Gaye’s ‘You’re the Man’

This aborted 1972 album would've been a great bridge between "What's Going On" and "Let's Get It On." But better a 2019 release than never.

With 1971’s “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye proved that he could make and bake his own cake, and eat it, too… that he could trade his suave, lover-man pose and debonair devil-may-care attitude for lyrical activism and righteous indignation… and that he could take the smooth, soulful voice that made him a pop superstar and use its mellifluous tones to quietly rant about the issues plaguing America, black and white.

Moving from jubilance and aspiration to despair and anger, Gaye pulled himself and Motown — both singles-oriented entities, until this record — into full-album symmetry and topicality. When Gaye wasn’t busy concentrating on producing spacey soul tones and softly rolling rhythms, he was singing about poverty, a ruined ecology, unemployment and all levels of protest, be it anti-military or anti-police. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Save the Children,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and the title track shifted how audiences and label looked at Gaye. Most particularly it changed how Marvin looked at himself. He could now write and sing songs whose meanings went beyond sweet romance. And for all that revolution of mind and effort, “What’s Going On” hit No. 1 at R&B and No. 6 on the pop albums chart.

What was he going to do for an encore?

Originally, Gaye’s goal was the moody mish-mash of oddly angled R&B melodies, slippery funk pulses and (mostly) communal consciousness-rich lyrics that fill “You’re the Man,” which is finally finding its very belated release in 2019.

For anyone interested in how Marvin would fit in the present day of Childish, Janelle and Solange, this fresh “lost” album, recorded in 1972, is the answer, even if Gaye originally left that question open to conjecture by shelving its sessions for no apparent reason. Several of its tracks have dripped out onto other Gaye packages, but this collection, with but a few fresh remixes from Salaam Remi, represents a “Man” in full.

Was this project designed to be one full album, as its lyrical emotions leap from sexed-up to sacred, from socially politicized to self-serving? Does the fact that its contributors jump from newish Jackson 5 collaborator/ Blaxploitation soundtrack composer Willie Hutch and songwriter Gloria Jones to grizzled vets such as arranger Gene Page (Barry White, Roberta Flack) mean much?

Taken as a (new) whole, this version of “You’re The Man” feeeeeels like what should have come between “What’s Going On,” Gaye’s epic score for “Trouble Man” and 1973’s erotic “Let’s Get It On.”

Commencing with the spectral, conga-slapping, scat-heavy funk of “You’re the Man Pts. I & II,” the record strolls through the front door brimming with confidence in the self, and in his issue-oriented beliefs. Without preaching, Gaye and his multi-tracked lead vocals (his new signature, complete with “whooos” and “yeahs”) make the title tune into a brio-filled compilation of his campaign-era needs, as he pinpoints how busing and segregation are tearing his people apart. Going even further, the “life in living color, fighting, killing and dope dealing,” that he witnessed every day (particularly in his Detroit, as these sessions represent some of the last songs he tracked at Motown’s Motor City studio) is what fueled “The World Is Rated X” and its slurpy, churning funk. The ecology whose mercy he begged on his last album was poisoned. Now, the planet’s human population was subject to the same venom, in near-“Soylent Green” proportions.

Other tall topics plagued Gaye’s mind going into the “Man” sessions of 1972.

The war in Vietnam and his brother Frankie’s haunted battle experiences that fueled the mood and expression of “What’s Going On” flow elegantly through the tinkling, mid-tempo “I Want To Come Home For Christmas,” even as Gaye portrays the weight of “a prisoner of war… hoping my family is well” with a heavy heart. As sleigh bells jingle and its jazzily Motown-ish melody of yore unspools (co-written with Forest Hairston), there’s dread and tenderness behind every word Gaye intones.

This being a Marvin Gaye album, there is love, devotion and dedication to women, sex and sensuality. “Women of the World” sounds sweet and seems to bask in then-new forms of liberation. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” sings Gaye in a congratulatory whisper. Yet before the song is done — now that feminine emancipation has “put him down”— where do he and his needs fit into her psychic universe? Her “World” is only cool if he’s still its center, and she’s revolving around him; not very evolved, Marvin.

That said, Gaye’s sonic romantic sensibilities — in the sensually stewing horns and Sound of Philadelphia harmonies of “I’m Gonna Give You Respect,” or the lush and hushing “Symphony” — are on par with his earlier smooth-operator classics. And Gaye lets his tentative male insecurity (or ingénue-ity, take your pick) come through on “My Last Chance,” as he allows his fluttering tenor croon to fence with a luscious saxophone’s lead. “I’m just a shy guy / I’m so nervous / Girl, but I got to try,” confesses Gaye, sounding like the salty Marvin of skinny ties and sharkskin suits, rather than the activist-poetic bohemian he had become by that time.

Whether from the perspective of its first moment — representing 1972’s political and racial turmoil and the social change of women’s liberation — or its present day release (same shit, different dress code), “You’re the Man” is a deliciously rich and cohesive whole from a man who was still finding his footing in the new world.

Marvin Gaye
“You’re the Man”
Motown/UME Records

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