AL GREEN Part 4 – He Just Wants To Praise The Lord
Throughout the 1980’s, Al Green’s music was focused almost solely on religious themes after he spent the previous decade as one of the world’s biggest soul/R&B stars. Often credited as Reverend Al Green during this period (although not on any of his albums), he barely achieved any chart success but obviously that wasn’t his concern as he followed a higher calling. The records often succumbed to the prevailing production trends of the era, which involved electronic drums, synths and an overall digital sheen that didn’t do the music any favors. However, this is the amazing Al Green we’re talking about, so no matter what setting his voice is in you know there will be plenty of enjoyable performances. I own five of the albums he released during this period but I’m also missing a few. After spending plenty of time with these five records this past week I feel confident that I’ve gotten an excellent overview of this portion of his catalog. If anyone believes any/all of the missing albums are worth exploring, please let me know and I’ll seek them out. I usually break down my lists of highlighted songs into “Essential” and “Notable” tracks, but I didn’t think anything on these records was truly essential so each album will only include one list of “Notable Tracks.” As a non-religious Jewish man I shouldn’t necessarily respond to most of this music, yet his inimitable voice was always the key to helping me embrace these albums. I hope any skeptics will keep an open mind and give them a chance.
Precious Lord (1982) was his third album of sacred material but the first one I own. The production is mostly lightweight which initially kept me from fully embracing it, but once I got past that hurdle I really enjoyed much of the material. A few of the songs really burrowed their way into my brain the last few days, so even though I don’t consider them essential they’re still immensely enjoyable. Also, at just over 31 minutes and 9 songs it’s a very quick listen.
- “Precious Lord” – A gospel classic originally by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey that finds Green delivering a passionate vocal performance. Lyrically it may be sacred but musically it’s as much pop & soul as it is gospel. It’s slightly funky in spite of the lightness of the production.
- “The Old Rugged Cross” – Another gospel classic, from the early 20th century, and probably my favorite song on the album. It has a traditional sound with strings & a choir, and it’s very uplifting.
- “Morningstar” – Features a smooth-jazz arrangement that makes it sound like an Al Jarreau song (that’s a good thing). The chorus is insanely catchy & upbeat: “There’s gonna be a Morningstar, in my darkest hour…”
- “Glory To His Name” – A pulsing & driving gospel sing-along and the peppiest track so far, with a cool walking bass line & lovely solos on electric piano & guitar.
- “In The Garden” – A slow tune in 3/4 time with a mournful tone & a lilting little guitar figure in the intro & outro. It’s very pretty and features a tasty electric guitar solo.
- “Hallelujah (I Just Want To Praise The Lord)” – The title is a clear indication of the infectious energy on display. It brings to mind a church full of people singing & dancing.
I’ll Rise Again (1983) is more of the same, with maybe a slightly more synthetic drum sound. Fortunately, it’s another brief album and the hit-to-miss ratio is about the same as it was on Precious Lord. The musicians also sound a little looser here, and the songs themselves cover a more diverse range of styles. This pair would make a good “2-LPs-on-1-CD” package.
- “It Don’t Take Much” – Sounds like typical early-‘80s R&B, with a synthetic production and a steady soulful groove. It’s very catchy and doesn’t have a religious vibe.
- “Jesus Is Coming (Back Again)” – Even with the sacred themes, it’s another slice of early-‘80s soul. The production gives it a little less punch than it needs but the melody is really nice and his voice is as strong as ever. I love the “hallelujah” call-and-response near the end.
- “Look At The Things That God Made” – Begins with sparse synth & a stomping beat with spoken lyrics before switching to a steady funky groove. It has a little more grit and the section with “Grass & trees, birds & bees, you & me…will never chaaaaange” is especially strong.
- “I Just Can’t Make It By Myself” – This one has some of the best instrumental work on his gospel records; a cool, slow, bluesy rhythm with bass leading the way & tasteful lead guitar accents. Green’s voice roars & soars throughout.
- “I Know It Was The Blood” – Features an ‘80s R&B dance floor groove. The vocals at “He died for all my sins” and “la-la-la” make it a great blend of gospel and dance/soul.
- “Straighten Out Your Life” – Blues guitar, a funky rhythm & synth squiggles make for a modern R&B/gospel hybrid. It’s one of the most “real” tracks even with some of the synthetic elements.
The next album I own is Soul Survivor (1987). In the time between I’ll Rise Again & this one he released three records (including a Christmas album) but there’s not a drastic change in his sound. This album marked his return to the R&B charts, reaching the Top 25, and the opening track performed the same feat on the R&B singles chart. In addition to the recurring religious themes, he performed a couple of well-known pop songs that can be interpreted as sacred &/or secular. This was also the first sign that he would be willing to go back to recording “pop” music, which he would eventually do in the following decade (but we’ll get to that in my next post). For now the Rev. Al Green continued to preach to his followers of all musical persuasions, and although I don’t think it’s as good as the previous two gospel albums there are plenty of strong songs to recommend.
- “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” – His Top 25 R&B hit that has similar production to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” It’s clearly religious but could work as a secular track as well. I like the melody in the chorus, where he sings “He’s coming back…like he said he would/for the true & good.”
- “Jesus Will Fix It” – A bluesy shuffle with subtle guitar work & a handclap-assisted rhythm. I love the organic, acoustic, back porch vibe. It’s spiritual without being preachy.
- “So Real To Me” – Features nice acoustic guitar work & simple percussion. At less than a minute it barely registers before fading away and it’s a shame he didn’t extend it.
- “You’ve Got A Friend” – Billy Preston joins Green for this 5+ minute version of the Carole King song made famous by James Taylor. It gets a bit overblown by the end but I like the way he turns this singer-songwriter confessional into a spiritual ballad.
- “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – Originally a hit for The Hollies in 1969. Green’s voice is strong & supple; the perfect instrument to elevate this lightweight, synth-heavy version to something more listenable than it should be. He taps into the spirituality without going over the top. I also like the smooth sax solo.
It takes a man who’s comfortable in his skin to pose for an album cover photo like I Get Joy (1989), but it’s a fitting image for that title (and maybe he had watched a marathon of The Cosby Show at the time). The words “praise,” “joy” & “tryin’” each appear twice in the track listing, indicating the positive nature of the album. The material here isn’t what I would typically respond to, but as usual his voice is the thing that draws me in. I liked it more each time I played it, in spite of the lightweight nature of the production & instrumentation.
- “All My Praise” – Driven by electronic drums & percussion and a bouncy bass line. “When times get rough & hard…” is a catchy pop melody.
- “Mighty Clouds Of Joy” – Set to a 3/4 rhythm, “Holy Jesus…let your love seize us” is a strong gospel hook.
- “I Get Joy” – An upbeat sing-along church song with cool backing vocals at “whattaya got for me?” The drum & organ sounds are synthetic & a bit cheesy but the energy is infectious.
- “As Long As We’re Together” – This isn’t really my thing: a repetitive early hip-hop rhythm that might also be considered “new jack swing.” It’s worth noting because it was a Top 20 R&B hit.
- “Praise Him” – An upbeat gospel hand-clapper. Nothing original but catchy & joyful.
- “Tryin’ To Do The Best I Can” – One of the most organic-sounding songs here, featuring a catchy pop melody & strong lead guitar work.
- “Tryin’ To Get Over You” – The shortest song on the album, at just over 2 minutes. It’s a slow waltz that sounds very similar to The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit” especially in the verses. The vocals are typically strong, and I like how he provides his own harmonies.
The final Al Green gospel album I own, One In A Million (1990), is actually a compilation of previously released gospel songs, but fortunately for me only 1 of the 10 tracks appeared on the albums discussed above. That makes this collection a perfect summary of those other records and also confirms that I’m probably not missing anything essential. There are some very good songs here yet nothing drastically different from the material I’ve already heard (other than, perhaps, the disco song included on the list below). Even with the inclusion of the excellent “The Old Rugged Cross,” this wouldn’t necessarily be the best introduction to this phase of his career for a newcomer as there are too many excellent songs mentioned above that didn’t make the cut. However, there are a handful of gems that I was pleased to uncover.
- “Too Close” – A very slow waltz with more organic-sounding instruments & a nice swirling organ in the background. There are also strong harmony vocals to complement Green’s preaching & soaring voice.
- “Where Love Rules” – A killer dance track featuring a string-laden disco groove with a cool stop-start pattern repeated in various sections. It’s also the longest song here, at more than 5 minutes, but doesn’t overstay its welcome.
- “The Lord Will Make A Way” – A funky midtempo groove with tasty organ work & slap bass upping the funk. The drum beat is equal parts soul & disco, and overall there’s a great atmosphere with Green’s full-throated vocals leading the way. It doesn’t seem like a religious song until the chorus.
- “No Not One” – Like the earlier “Precious Lord,” this was written by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. The metronomic rhythm pushes this 6/8 waltz along, while the biggest hook is the female voices intoning, “No…not…one.” It also features a strong organ solo.
- “In The Holy Name Of Jesus” – A slightly slower rhythm with steady hi-hat gives it more than a hint of his classic “You Ought To Be With Me.” The string arrangement, acoustic strumming & horn chart are particular highlights. Not a classic but musically it’s a throwback to his Hi Records years.
Unless you’re a lover of sacred/gospel music it’s unlikely that you feel more strongly about these albums than I do. As someone who was introduced to the music of Al Green via his acknowledged ‘70s soul/R&B classics this era has always been more of a curiosity, so I’m glad I finally gave these records the time they deserved. I doubt I’ll revisit them very often but whenever I do I’ll know what to expect (and which songs I’ll look forward to the most). I’m eager to hear what others think of this portion of his discography, so please share your thoughts in the Comments section below. Next time I’ll wrap up this series with the four most recent Al Green albums in my collection, including a couple of reunions with Willie Mitchell & the Hi Records musicians.