Album Review: blackSUMMERS'night (2016) by Maxwell
Great, Based on 12 Critics
AllMusic - 90 Based on rating 9/10
BlackSUMMERS'night begins the way BLACKsummers'night ends: with a riveting groove in need of an extended 12" version. Like the instrumental finale of the album that preceded it, which now sounds like a set-up, "All the Ways Love Can Feel" is a dynamic and deliberate soul, jazz, and funk fusion, neatly interlaced and enlivened with Kenneth Whalum III's saxophone and Keyon Harrold's trumpet. The grain in Maxwell's voice evinces the reality: the seven years that passed between his Grammy-winning 2009 album and this follow-up, at one point anticipated in 2011.
Though consistently excellent, Maxwell has always sailed forward with a quiet confidence and little controversy, and he’s never really received the fanfare that fellow neo-soul progenitor D’Angelo probably wishes had skipped him. Their pioneering careers launched simultaneously, but Brown Sugar, D’Angelo’s studio debut, was released in July 1995 to immediate success. Maxwell turned in his first album, Urban Hang Suite, around the same time, but it was shelved for almost a year and when it finally did drop in April of 1996, it gathered steam slowly.
Think of Maxwell as R&B's Thom Yorke – a cosmic love man riding open-ended grooves that shift from inner exploration to booty motivation in the blink of an eye. He's always one kiss away from falsetto-powered interstellar overdrive – just seeing his lady's face inspires "a thousand races into space" on "All the Ways Love Can Feel," the opening cut on his most consistent set since his debut, Urban Hang Suite, in 1996. Maxwell anchors the cloud-eating sweep of these tracks with solid guitar and bass hooks.
Maxwell’s first offering in seven years forms the second instalment of a trilogy of albums that are titled identically but for the position of the capital letters. The Grammy-winning soul man is a subeditor’s nightmare, but confusion seems a small price to pay for such a classy comeback collection of anguished R&B. While he’s been away, the man has mourned family members, turned 40 and listened to the xx, whose eerie spaciousness is audible.
Maxwell's straight-up approach to soul music has both endeared him to R&B fans and solidified his standing with names like Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross. It's remarkable how he's been able to continue crafting sounds that stay firmly within the contemporary R&B lane without coming off stale or dated.The imperatively titled blackSUMMERS'night — bold the "SUMMERS" please — is his fifth studio album, second in a scheduled trilogy of albums and first in seven years. Yet here we are, with tracks evoking previous efforts while remaining fresh to the ear.Consider the 43-year-old the male version of Sade, an artist who has countless times refined a particular musical mode into a gleaming diamond shine.
Halfway through his first album since the formation of the Tea Party, Maxwell sings, “I’m hearin’ and I’m sayin’ things all the time / The word on the street is I’m slowly losing my mind,” on a song called “1990x. ” Anyone who heard “Lake By the Ocean,” purposefully leaked during one somnolent April week, knows they needn’t have worried. A master class in arranging pianos, strings, and falsetto, fulsome in its wish to connect with an object of desire, condensing a future of possibilities into a metaphor of upper-bourgeois comfort, “Lake By the Ocean” was a new peak for this singer-songwriter.
After starting his career with his first three studio albums released over the course of six years (and a live MTV Unplugged EP in between his debut and sophomore efforts to boot), the crooner slowed his pace considerably. The world waited for what felt like a very long eight years following Now for the first of the announced trilogy of BLACKsummers’night (with the progression of caps moving to the next word for each subsequent release) and treated us to the lovely lead single “Pretty Wings”. During the promotion of that album, he promised to not wait so long to release its followup.
Maxwell has never quite fulfilled the promise of his lavish debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, an anatomy of a love affair that helped shape the neo-soul movement. Twenty years on, the New Yorker’s voice remains a potent instrument – supple, vulnerable and seemingly effortless – while his songs, for all their electronic touches, are still anchored in soul’s 70s golden age. That’s fine when the end result is as memorable as the ballad Lake By the Ocean, all stop-start drums and Maxwell’s smooth falsetto.
In 1996, Brooklyn-born Maxwell released his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and firmly cemented himself as one of his generation’s go-to silver-tongued musical lotharios. In fact, all four of his previous studio albums – especially 1998’s Embrya, in addition to his debut – are direct challengers to D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Marvin Gaye’s I Want You for the prestigious Sexiest Album of All Time title. And, with blackSUMMERS’night – his first album in seven years – he’s added another contender to the mix.
“blackSUMMERSnight,” Maxwell The BET Awards telecast June 26 was full of worthy tributes to the late Prince, from the Philadelphia soul singer Bilal’s jaw-dropping performance of “Purple Rain” chestnut “The Beautiful Ones” to the triumphant show-closing medley headlined by Sheila E. But the performance that most effectively mirrored the dearly beloved pop polymath’s desire to push culture forward came from the soul singer Maxwell, who segued from a simmering version of his besotted “Lake by the Ocean” into a “Nothing Compares 2 U” cover that doubled as a referendum of sorts on soul music. “I went to the record store, Apple, Spotify too,” he sang, “and they told me, ‘boy you’d better try to make some music, which you can’t do — ’cause Prince is the truth!’ ” That winking protest also acted as a sly advertisement for Maxwell’s own music.
It’s been seven years since Maxwell released an album; an eternity in pop music years, but a business-as-usual timeline for this veteran soul singer. The 43-year-old artist has continually risked obscurity by issuing only five albums over two decades. But these long dry spells have only added to Maxwell’s allure, and pumped up expectations for each new, often late, arrival.
With keyboards glimmering and a rhythm section percolating beneath wispy vocals, Maxwell might as well be Sade's American cousin. Like Sade, Maxwell has built a career out of remote sensuality that is vaguely androgynous, exotic, unknowable. And like the British singer, he releases albums at his own deliberate pace, often disappearing for a half-decade or more to come up with something that represents a small evolution from everything he's done previously.