BlackSUMMERS’night is the follow up to Maxwell’s 2009 release BLACKsummers’night and the second instalment in the debonair soul singer’s quest to shield himself from prospective fans who want to get into his discography using non-case-sensitive search engines. BLACKsummers’night was, if you’ve not listened to it, a lovely little album: a stylish, charming blend of vocal chops, wit and energetic funk that eschewed the hazy grooves of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu in favour of a lighter touch and clocked it all in at a concise 35-ish minutes. BlackSUMMERS’night isn’t an equal successor, but it’s a worthy one all the same.
The album for me didn’t exactly put its best foot forwards. Although I’ll give some props to the rather interesting horn licks in “All The Ways That Love Can Feel” and “The Fall” (the first two tracks), the first problem I noticed was the fact that the vocals really weren’t tethered down enough by the instruments. It’s a bugbear I’ve run into before in the careers of otherwise very good soul artists (Bilal and Miguel both fell somewhat afoul of this last year); Maxwell’s voice is as powerful and dynamic as anyone’s, but a joyride doesn’t become any more sensible because it’s being done in a Ferrari. The first three tracks all sport fidgety, energetic drumlines and instrumental sections that are all flourish and no groove, and hearing Maxwell’s voice loop-de-loop over the top of it feels uncontrolled and incoherent.
But when the album manages to get the instruments and the vocals working in tandem – and it does; by “Lake by the Ocean” it seems to have gotten a solid grasp of doing that – it absolutely shines. “Lake by The Ocean” by itself is almost worth recommending the entire album for: a seductive, intelligent piece that foregrounds synthesizers with pianos and acoustic guitar to spectacular effect, and sports a subtly but supremely hooky chorus to boot. “Hostage”, in particular, exemplifies how important this kind of singer/instrument synergy is. The track begins with astral xylophones and a repetitive, pattering drumbeat, and builds to an explosive climax around four fifths in. Maxwell’s adoption of a harsher, rawer singing style feels worthy of the moment because it’s been built up in accordance with the song-writing around it. “Lost”, with its old fashioned bluesy lyrics and heavy, echoing pianos, becomes a real old school ballad and adds a touch of quiet reverence to the album’s final quarter.
To be honest, even leaving aside the synergy, the album ultimately lives and dies on whether or not the instruments are interesting enough to keep pace with the vocals. “Fingers Crossed” demonstrates this: although the drumline of the track is slightly too rickety and unpredictable to carry Maxwell’s singing, the whole thing succeeds on some masterful piano and horn work, and on its captivating outro segment, in which Maxwell’s singing fades to a chanted mutter while batteries of horns and synthesizers take flight.
Whereas BLACKsummers’night was confident – “Global warming ain’t got nothing on this chick” isn’t a lyric you sing unless you’re pretty assured you’re telling the story to someone who’s got time for your witticisms – blackSUMMERS’night is on the whole more confessional, and again, the album’s at its best when it embraces that. Whereas the more vibrant numbers- “Gods”, for example, and the opening tracks – seem to scramble to find an emotion to convey, the album’s softer and gentler tracks, which by the end of the album have pretty much entirely taken over the setlist, are sublime. It’s enjoyable how astral out the whole things tend to be; “Listen Hear” and “Of All Kind” feel like soul music’s answer to space rock. Indeed, given the album grows gradually more miasmic as it progresses, there’s a haunting feeling of “coming apart” to the whole affair; Maxwell’s seeming evaporation adds another layer of poignancy to his lyrics.
BlackSUMMERS’night is inconsistent enough that it couldn’t ever be anything more than a mixed bag, but it’s definitely a mixed bag with an emphasis on the positive. Importantly, although it’s definitely not as good as BLACKsummers’night, it isn’t just an inferior copy: it’s quieter, franker, less funky but more soulful, and represents just as much as its predecessor a step forwards by a deeply creative artist into new terrain. And sure, it’s not quite the terrain he’s at his best on, but it’s a good step all the same.