June 01, 2008

Al Green Gets Back To His Roots with Lay It Down

Ever since Al Green returned to secular music in the mid-‘90s, he never quite regained his footing as his recordings lacked the visceral grit of his ‘70s classics. However, with the right elements in place on his latest effort, Lay It Down, he delivers his most fluid, funky, from-the-gut-soulful album since the halcyon days of Call Me, I’m Still In Love With You, and Al Green Explores Your Mind.

With production and percussion duties manned by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, the album achieves an old-school, down-home vibe, yielding songs that come off as satisfyingly unrushed, natural, and — dare one think it — dirty. Green thrives in such conditions and his doing so underscores the essence of this album’s success: For the first time in a long time, Al Green sounds thoroughly at ease in the role of a seductive soul man.

Full of swagger and self-assurance, he comes on strong through an effusion of thick, throbbing rhythms and horns. His voice is still an intoxicating instrument, suggesting more than it says, aching in ways that blur the distinction between deliberate and carnal expression. He summons something intense on cuts like “I’m Wild About You” and “All I Need,” grumbling low and moaning in falsetto as the grooves inspire. He enlivens “Wanna Say” and “No One Like You” with gospel euphoria. And, driven by a different power altogether, he gets hot and heavy with Corrine Bailey Rae on “Take Your Time,” the album’s smokiest, most erotic performance.

John Legend and Anthony Hamilton also contribute their talents, yet their involvement thankfully doesn’t seem like a means to acclimatize Green to a broader (perhaps younger) audience. To the contrary, these artists have come to Al Green, not the other way around.

Such is what makes for a sensational album by one of the last great soul men. A synergistic coming together of talent — from production to performance — has not only encouraged Al Green to create his finest album in decades, but one of this year’s best as well.