AL GREEN and Marvin Gaye were the sexiest soul singers of the '70s. Both could purr intimately while their band churned up a wicked syncopation, producing tenderness and action at the same time.
Both men grew up in gospel-music families. And both, in their evolution from sanctified singers into soul superstars, developed familial and internal conflicts -- conflicts between the sensual and the spiritual which are as old as American black music.
Now, after several years of silence, both Green and Gaye have finally released new albums. Each offers an instructive glimpse into the conflict between sex and religion.
Al Green's "The Lord Will Make a Way" (Myrrh MSB-6661) is ostensibly a purely religious record. All eight tunes are Christian spirituals rearranged by Green, a practicing minister himself. The record itself is put out by Word Inc., a fundamentalist group in Waco, Texas.
The band, though, is the same one that Green has used since 1977, with two horn players going back to the earliest days of the "Memphis sound." With Green on lead guitar, the band plays the same sensual syncopation Green employed on his soul hits. Green's vocals are alternately husky, shuddering, gutteral and squealing. And if the lyrics direct the listener's eyes heavenward, the music works in another direction.
The album's title tune is the familiar tale of a lost soul pulled from a meaningless life by the Lord. Yet Green's chunky rhythm guitar and Reubin Fairfax's slapped electric bass send another message entirely. Green's voice delivers the holy lyrics with a grunting buildup and a climactic burst that would make James Brown proud.
Green's performance is as funky and excitng as it ever was. Unfortunately, he wrote none of the songs and nothing in the lyrics refers to his gospel-soul conflicts. For such revelations, one has to turn back to his classic "Belle" album.
Marvin Gaye, by contrast, is quite explicit about the competing pulls of the physical and spiritual on "In Our Lifetime" (Tamla T8-374MIA). The album's cover is an illustration of Gaye as a haloed angle facing Gaye as a horned demon across a kitchen table. On the eight songs inside, Gaye tries to reconcile his erotic music with his gospel roots.
On "Love Me Now Or Love Me Later," Gaye recounts a verbal tug-of-war between a good god and an evil god. In his smooth, breathy tenor, Gaye sings: "We were given understanding and reason to decide whether to join God in love and peace or burn in your eternal fire. Lord have mercy!"
These metaphysical musings are effective because Gaye delivers them with understated ease, as if he were singing to himself. A jazz guitar solo supplies the emotional accents. Barely audible strings and voices hover at the edges of the song, creating the same illusion of immense space that made the musings on Gaye's "What's Going On" work so well.
Gaye wonders aloud if he's ready to make a choice between good and evil, and which category sex falls into. "Love Me Now Or Love Me Later" is followed by "Heavy Love Affair." The beat picks up and Gaye sings about the bedroom: "It's a mystery. I'm feeling the pain, and I feel the love."
This is followed by the album's title song, seven minutes of delirious funk.
The horn section punches home a big deance beat. In his reflective voice Gaye says, "There are pitfalls in life . . . We accept the pleasure. We accept the pain." Frank Blair's string-popping bass comes to the foreground and Gaye cries: "Sweat down my spine . . . it's all right to get funky!"
Gaye is finally able to accept sex as a vehicle for God's love. On "Praise," Gaye tells a lover: "I want your light to come shining through." On "Love Party," he advises the listener to meditate "on your body in His image."
Both the spirituality and eroticism are caught in the music. The jazz solos sprinkled throughout reach beyond the dance beat for something transcedant. The mix is full of offbeat rhythms and quirky solos way in the background, while up front is solid, modern funk in the style of Parliament and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Gaye's great vocals make the meditative passages hum with intensity. When he reaches a climax, his voice bounces off the sides of his throat before trailing off into a wispy falsetto. And he can make a line like "Groove baby, groove on the light" sound religious and sexy at the same time. Amen.