A prevalent current cultural trend is that of decade fetishization. It can be seen most specifically in the clothing we wear, the contemporary music we listen to (as a mainstream example, think of how closely both Adele and Beyoncé embody the persona of early female pop stars like Etta James), and in the way we talk about these and other cultural artifacts from previous decades with such reverence. Case in point, “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green comes on the radio and instantly someone you are with, or maybe even you, say “now those were the good old days.”
Ah yes, the good old days fraught with racial strife, post-Vietnam cultural vapidity, moral relativism and Watergate.
Close analysis of popular music speaks less to its accurate emblemizing of the time period from which it came and more to its ability to transcend such constraints of temporality and even change our perceptions of our own history. A marvelous point of discussion on this quality is Al Green’s 1972 album Let’s Stay Together and its previously mentioned title track, reviewed here.
Along with Marvin Gaye, Green was one of the frontrunners of the second wave of African American soul music prompted by the deaths of the genre’s two biggest stars—Sam Cooke and Otis Redding—between 1964 and 1967. His stardom would never grow to match that of Gaye—already established at Motown Records with several hits—but his songwriting prowess and vocal precision were on par with those of his contemporary. On certain occasions, even superior.
All of the skills in Green’s repertoire are working with full force on Let’s Stay Together; setting aside each of the intricately arranged instrumental sections which move the song forward with a sensual pulse, his voice is utterly phenomenal. Mimicking the tonal qualities of an intimate whisper, he gives the listener words of committed reassurance while hitting a series of varying pitches with unwavering accuracy. The whole song is a dogfight between technical restraint and unguarded desire.
The rest of the songs on the album essentially speak to this same thematic and aesthetic quality.
This speaks to their quality that Green’s testaments of and yearnings for love never fall into a pattern of repetition and monotony. It also speaks to a certain element of backwards-looking wish fulfillment in our currently cynical and hedonistic culture that we still find such music appealing.
How much we would love to return to a point of time when carnality and love were fully intertwined and not pulling away to each other toward mutual exclusivity?
The albums second track, “La-la For You,” diverts slightly in its aesthetic attentions with a rollicking horns section and piano/organ accents to again showcase Green’s rich, multi-tiered voice. “So You’re Leaving” plaintively confronts a lover who has chosen to leave based on slandering gossip. “Old Time Lovin’” utilizes a vague lyrical idiom (just what is “old time” loving?) which has its meaning supplied, again, by Green’s suggestively inviting voice, insisting “sometimes you make me want/to give up the right for the wrong.”
Let’s Stay Together is certainly an album of its time, but its aesthetics are now both what makes it charming and revelatory, and what pinpoints the universalizing human qualities underlying pop music of all points in history.