Like the left-wing folk singer or the populist rocker, the gospel singer must grow tired of preaching to the converted. While there is some satisfaction in providing aid and comfort to the true believers, the evangelizing artist must yearn to reach out to the unconverted, to change some minds and to expand the community of the faithful.
It must be the motivation for gospel singer Al Green to return to the pop marketplace with "He Is the Light" (A&M SP 5102). Like Amy Grant earlier this year, Green has left the gospel label Myrrh for the major pop label A&M in hopes of transferring his gospel stardom into pop stardom and spreading the Good Word to a larger audience. Unlike Grant, though, Green has a proven pop track record, and his new album reunites him for the first time in nine years with Willie Mitchell, the producer of Green's many Top 10 singles in the '70s.
This reunion, long awaited by connoisseurs of soul music, proves a bit disappointing. The song writing, the playing and the singing are all quite respectable and even enjoyable, but nothing ever catches fire. Green's voice, one of America's greatest treasures, purrs and squeals with its usual perfection. Yet it seems unnaturally subdued, as if Green's heart wasn't fully in this project. On Green's best records, sacred or secular, he pushes himself to the emotional brink; he takes no such risks on this record.
Green wrote five of the album's nine songs -- his biggest song-writing output since 1977's classic "Belle" album. These new compositions are neither the secular love songs of his hit singles nor the spiritual confessions of "Belle." Instead they are fairly typical pop-gospel numbers: professions of faith set to a midtempo, light-rock backing. They would be undistinguished sung by anyone but Green. The rest of the album is devoted to other pop-gospel numbers, including a delightful version of Sam Cooke's "Be With Me Jesus" and a disappointing version of the Clark Sisters' "You Brought the Sunshine."
Despite this album's shortcomings, one wants to encourage Green's move back toward pop music. First of all, he's too large a talent to address a limited audience. More importantly, he has demonstrated the ability (especially on "Belle") to write and sing about the conflicts between religious beliefs and the real world. He should address these conflicts instead of making faith seem overly easy. On his best songs, Green's syncopated rhythm and odd chord changes evoke a troubling conflict that he then resolves with a cathartic profession of romantic or heavenly love. The closest he comes to that on the new album is "I Feel Like Going On." Over a funky rhythm figure, Green sings a pleasurable melody that is bolstered by punchy horn charts. But because Green never acknowledges the obstacles to "Going On," the catharsis is robbed of its power and the singer never gets a chance to cut loose.
Green does cut loose, though, in his all too brief appearance on "Jubilee: A Musical Tribute to Fisk University, Live" (Rejoice, 7-01-500228-0). This special concert for the university was climaxed by three Green tunes. Pushed by a sharp gospel-soul band, Green outdoes himself -- shouting, laughing and finger-popping his way to heaven. The highlight is his recent signature tune, "His Name Is Jesus" -- he bites off the syllables on the beat and goes into an unearthly falsetto swoon on the title phrase.
The rest of the "Jubilee" album features well-sung but unexceptional numbers by Shirley Caesar, the Williams Brothers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Bobby Jones and Glenda Smith Whyte. Overall, the album is marred by too much talking and not enough singing.
Caesar, who owns one of the best voices in the gospel field, is unlikely ever to cross over to the pop field. She is a hard-sell evangelist with little interest or patience for the world outside the church. Her vocals have a pulpit-thumping sermon quality. Nonetheless, she has a remarkable voice that seems to increase in power even as it rises from a guttural shout to a high-pitched wail. Her new album, "Celebration" (Rejoice, 7-01-500128-4), boasts an excellent Nashville band, featuring pianist Barry Beckett and bassist Jesse Boyce, that pushes Caesar into some of her best performances ever.
Caesar wrote or cowrote five of the eight tunes, and it's on those numbers that her voice ranges most freely, reaching a high-voltage climax each time. Perhaps the best is the title cut; the band gives it a wall-of-gospel wallop that catapults Caesar into a big-shouting climax. By contrast, she sounds uncomfortable when she ventures away from traditional hymns. "Martin," Steve Camps' maudlin tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., sounds waterlogged, as does Russ Taff's "We Will Stand."
Also unlikely to cross over is the popular gospel duo of Rev. F.C. Barnes & Rev. Janice Brown. Just the same, the new album, "Hold On" (Atlanta International, AIR-10099), displays the old-fashioned charms of this well-seasoned twosome. Working comfortably within the traditional southern gospel style on eight original songs, the duo takes a humbler approach than Caesar. Instead of trying to convince everyone else of the One Way, Barnes & Brown simply share the joy of their own beliefs. When they sing "Jesus Found Me (Just in Time)" or "I'm So Glad Jesus Loves Me," their genuine gratitude radiates contagiously. Over a piano-and-organ sextet, Barnes' grainy testifying baritone trades phrases with Brown's angelic soprano much like Roebuck (Pop) Staple interacts with Mavis Staple.
The new album, "The Staple Singers" (Private I BFZ 40109), is an excellent example of how to combine gospel and pop. Pop and Mavis will always sound like southern gospel singers, and every song they choose carries a positive message. Encouraged by their success last year with the Talking Heads' "Slippery People," the Staples have applied that modern art-funk sound to a whole album of inspirational songs. They transform the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" into a thrillingly soulful tour de force; Mavis could be singing about any serious moral issue when she sternly pronounces, "This ain't no fooling around!" Talking Head David Byrne contributes funky guitar to the antimilitarist anthem "Back to the War."
Producers Gary Goetzman and Mike Piccirillo, who wrote that song, do a superb job of reconciling the Staples' gospel roots with vanguard pop. They wrote four songs that work as either religious or secular messages and picked out four others just like them. The jagged uptempo tracks challenge Mavis to her fiercest, most rhythmic singing ever. When she shouts out over the aggressive synths and guitars that "Nobody can make it on their own," there's a desperation in her voice, as if time were running out for such messages. Let's hope not.