This is a designer's original, a collector's item. If you liked For the Good Times or How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, you're probably going to want to buy this album." Al Green is talking about Lay It Down, his new Blue Note release that drops at the end of May. And he is right. The recording is a healthy helping of the lush, romantic sound that he and legendary producer Willie Mitchell created in Memphis in the "70s. On the surface, the soul stew remains the same. But the ingredients this time are startlingly different.
The Rev. Green didn't go into the studio with Willie Mitchell at the helm, nor with the stalwart Hi Records band the Hodges brothers and drummer Skip Pitts, with whom he's been cutting hits since 1971 who appeared on his two previous returns to secular soul. Instead, the album was the brainchild of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the drummer and frontman for the seminal live hip-hop hybrid band the Roots. Thompson enlisted a team of first-call neo-soul artists to collaborate with Green, plus contemporary vocalists John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae. The Dap-King horns, who added soul to Amy Winehouse's smash Back in Black are in full effect, as are a team of session players whose usual gigs are with a generation of musicians who could have been conceived to the sound of Green's velvety purr: Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Joss Stone and others.
Thompson has said the idea for the project came about when the Roots was on tour with the White Stripes, when Jack White was preparing to go into the studio for Van Lear Rose, his 2004 collaboration with Loretta Lynn. That got Thompson thinking about which of his own idols he'd like to work with. He got on the phone, and a 2006 date at New York's Electric Lady Studios that was meant to be a get-acquainted session for Green, Thompson and keyboardist John Poyser turned into a marathon collaborative songwriting session during which most of the tracks on Lay It Down were sketched out. With all that modern talent on the scene, however, the consensus was not to try to fix what wasn't broken.
'I didn't have a problem with whatever they wanted to play," Green says. "But they said, "We want to keep Al singing like Al.' I told them to play like they played, but mostly they would wind up matching and doing the songs in the style that originally was created by Willie Mitchell."
Thompson has also made the bold claim that Lay It Down is the true follow-up to The Belle Album, a landmark Green recording from 1978 that came about during his life's most difficult transition. Green was reeling from an infamous incident wherein a disturbed female friend took her own life after breaking into his home and scalding him with a pot of boiling grits. He was thrown into an intense personal and musical identity struggle, and shortly after gave his life to Christianity. Belle is a raw and astonishing document of those changes. Also made without Willie and the Hi band, it's a powerful collection of spiritual soul that channels Green's trademark romantic style into an ecstatic celebration of the Lord. It was also his last secular release for almost two decades. After Belle, he cut a few gospel albums and devoted much of his time to ministering at his Memphis church.
Lay It Down is not a religious album, but it does sound like a resolution to the climax that was Belle. The spiritual is woven subtly into the silky romance of the record, as if it's the work of a man who has found some measure of inner peace and identity after a long tussle. The title is multiple in its meaning: it works on the level of laying down on the waterbed with the lights dimmed, but there also is the sense of finally laying down a heavy burden.
'I wanted to write about wild love, and the quest for love," Green says. "Love can be rude sometimes. But you have to be able to take a chance on love. It's still worth taking a chance on love, even if you get hurt. Because love is so magnificent, so wonderful, so forgiving."
- Al Green's new recording picks up where some of his classic work left off (5:45 p.m. Sunday, April 27, Congo Square "My Louisiana" Stage).