See the album cover photo above for Maxwell's latest release, black SUMMERS'night? That's how I feel listening to the seven years in the making album: not quite a headache, but confused and wondering how we got here.
When Maxwell hit in 1996 with his debut album, Urban Hang Suite, I thought the guy that Luther could hand the baton off to had arrived. The opener, instrumental The Urban Suite, set the mood, at once sounding retro and progressive at the same time. With grooves like Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder), Sumthin', Sumthin', Welcome and 'Til the Cops Come Knockin', I was put on my heels. Lyrically imaginative but accessible, help from the legendary Leon Ware (I Want You) and Sade's main collaborators, Maxwell entered like a hurricane. And live he didn't disappoint, as the BET special Planet Groove show demonstrates, catching Maxwell and his band in peak form.
His second album, Embrya, almost defiantly moved away from the sound that sold over a million copies. The new approach was a bit more difficult to digest, the music was ethereal, supporting the album's cover photo of Maxwell underwater. He described the meaning of the album's title as 'an approaching growing transition thought to be contained but destined for broader perception'. Fortunately the music wasn't quite as baffling as his description of it, but it was still a long way from the consumer friendly hit sound of Urban Hang Suite.
While a couple of the songs made the charts, the overall response to Embrya was one of tolerance, more so than enthusiasm. Then R. Kelly, of all people arrived to save the day with Fortunate, a song he wrote and produced for Maxwell, for the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence movie Life. According to Kelly, Maxwell didn't want to do the song, but he did it anyway. If that's true, then Maxwell doesn't always know what's best for him, because Fortunate is a classic soul man ballad that contains one of his best vocal performances.
His third studio album, Now, suggested that he was back on track. Anchored by another great ballad, Lifetime and his elegant interpretation of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work, along with mid tempo grooves like Get to Know Ya (Uncut), Maxwell seemed to regain his misplaced mojo. He had a successful tour, sold another million records and then vanished for nearly eight years.
Maxwell returned in 2009 with BLACKsummer'snight, the first of a planned three album trilogy, with each subsequent album due in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Volume one was an adventuresome success, with Maxwell finally figuring out how to marry his progressive ideas with grounded lyrics and music that reinforced traditional pop structure while still pushing the creative envelope. Bad Habits, the samba groove of Cold and the gossamer delicacy of Pretty Wings heralded a more mature, confident Maxwell, who successfully presented a comprehensive vision that held together song to song and made this listener look forward to the second part of the trilogy.
Now seven years later, here we are with blackSUMMER'Snight. A. Scott Galloway, a music aficionado with a masterful command of the english language, always has my total respect when it comes to critiquing the popular song. When the first single, Lake by the Ocean came out, Scott proclaimed its greatness, calling it one of his favorite songs of the year. I really wanted to cosign his excitement, but I couldn't. It felt like a lesser version of Pretty Wings and between his falsetto, the song's murky production and the indecipherable lyrics, I threw up my hands, hoping that hearing it in context of the album would help me find what I was missing.
Nope. That didn't happen. This album is the biggest musical disappointment that I've had since Ed Motta's sequel to his classic AOR (discussion for another column). Intrigued by trip/lounge music with a heavy reliance on percussion, Maxwell put melody aside in order to create atmosphere and electronic grooves that rarely feel organic. Lyrically, he's back in the abstract space of Embrya, where hooks are secondary to airy, overly futuristic lyrical drivel. Perhaps this is an album that rewards repeated listens, but life's too short. In the plus column, though, it does present Lake by the Ocean in a much better light, as one of the few tunes that somewhat resembles a coherent song.
To be clear, I respect that Maxwell has a vision and refuses to repeat past success. That's not a road that multi-platinum artists tend to travel down, especially those rooted in R&B. I also give him props for using the same co-writer and engineer that he's used from the very beginning. If he wants to make music that satisfies his soul above all else, that's his right too.
Perhaps I was expecting too much after the astonishing debut of his first album, but I don't think so. Watching him perform a powerful tribute to Prince on Nothing Compares to You at the 2016 BET Awards, it's clear that with the right song, Maxwell is one of the most compelling performers working today. Maybe it's time to stretch out his creative wings and try some new collabs or maybe a few more cover tunes. He's still got it, he just needs help with what to do with it.
Fingers crossed for the final part of the musical trilogy due...sometime.