God bless Al Green
When Al Green stepped off the concert stage in 1979 and took his place behind the pulpit, the greatest singer alive never once tried to reconcile the disparities: His soul belonged to God, his heart belonged to the ladies, and never the twain shall meet as they did on 1973's Call Me, when Rev. Al put "Jesus is Waiting" next to "Here I Am." Like he sang on "Belle" in 1977, shortly after Green was ordained a minister and purchased the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis: "It's you that I want, but Him that I need." Unlike Prince and Terence Trent D'Arby, two Green acolytes who hang their bikini briefs on a cross, Green drew a very strict line between soul music and gospel, never mixing moans with hallelujahs.
When he wore the robes and preached the gospel, he was the Lord's messenger, and his recording output for much of the 1980s (with such albums as I'll Rise Again and Trust in God) reflected his determination to save those he had once led into sin after a night of hearing "Let's Stay Together." Green started making a move toward the pop world again in the late '80s, but albums like Soul Survivor and I Get Joy were the R&B equivalents of Amy Grant's A&M-era records: Their religious sentiments were simply clouded by a secular language, and for every "soul" song, there were five or six that substituted "Jesus" for "baby." Either way, though, he got off--on love for Christ, on love for a woman, on love for music.
That doesn't make Your Heart's in Good Hands, his latest record and his first "secular" one in almost 20 years, the change-of-heart landmark it's advertised as. There's some real fire there, some classic Green that would sound dated in the hands of a lesser singer (which would be about anyone else), but even when Green swapped God for sex as the source of his inspiration in the '80s, he never lost sight of the truth: It didn't much matter what he sang about, Rev. Al wrapped his from-the-mountaintop voice around the tradition like any good soul singer who understands ecstasy's a noble pursuit on Sunday morning and Saturday night.
"You don't sit up in the car or in the mirror or something and just say, 'Well, I think I'll cut a secular album,' or, 'Well, I think I'll do a gospel album,'" Green told the Observer in December. "It just happened to be what happened this time, and we wound up intentionally cutting a rhythm-and-blues soul-music album. That's what we wanted to cut. We know where we're from. This isn't Trust in God. We cut it intentionally to be 'Your heart's in good hands, baby.' As long as you stand by my side, your heart's in good hands."
Al Green performs May 17 at Starplex Amphitheater. The Whispers open.
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