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Album review: Maxwell's 'BLACKsummers' Night'

Maxwell The best way to listen to Maxwell's new "BLACKsummers' Night" is with the volume turned all the way up. The R&B artist didn't take a turn toward heavy metal during the eight years he's spent between releasing albums; this one, like his previous three, is full of meditative jams written on the continuum between ardor and heartache. But as genteel and deceptively traditionalist as is Maxwell's veneer, he's always been bent on taking urban music forward: he just takes obsessively careful, small steps, best appreciated through close attention.

And he believes, passionately, in dynamics. Many of the songs on "BLACKsummers' Night," the first part of a trilogy Maxwell plans to unfold over the next few years, are structured around a short musical phrase, played on a keyboard or guitar, on which everything else loops and builds. (Doesn't that sound like Radiohead's approach? That's an inspiration Maxwell has cited in interviews.)

These details are different than the hooks usually heard on the radio. They don't grab; they're not compressed for maximum brightness. Sometimes one recedes and another momentarily dominates -- a horn line might burst through, or a kick drum completes the thought of a bassline.

Maxwell's vocals move in conversation with these elements, growing into the space above and around them. He sings about relationships -- many songs here are about a cherished but disappointing love affair -- and the music replicates the experience of an intimate connection, its ebbs and surges, its sometimes frustrating turns.

Compare this sound to the showiness of other current urban hitmakers, like Jeremiah or even the more laid back Trey Songz. Those singers telegraph their moods, whether they're getting down or opening their hearts. Their music is meant to be catchy and quickly absorbed. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not Maxwell's approach. Even when he's not too proud to beg, he stays true to his own internal clock, timing his pleas as they might unfold in real time instead of on the stage of pop seduction.

This doesn't mean Maxwell isn't a great seducer. He's known as a ladies' favorite and purveyor of "baby-making" soundtracks, and many songs here, whether the directly seductive "Stop the World" or the mournful but still sexy "Pretty Wings," drip plenty of candle wax.

But let's give Maxwell's female fans a little credit for intelligence. His music is libidinally compelling because it is complex. Following the example of his acknowledged influence Al Green, Maxwell's singing teases out the subtle gradations of feeling in a lyric -- even a dubiously "poetic" one like, "Hell hath no fury like the flurry of your snow" -- to express how sexual joy intertwines with loneliness, or anger at a love lost collides with guilt and self-loathing.

"BLACKsummers' Night" spends much time exploring those less comfortable emotions. For all the talk that Maxwell's covered in thrown panties wherever he walks, he often sounds somber, resentful and wrecked. Pop doesn't get much more desolate than "Playing Possum," an elegy for a sweetheart who's literally departed. And "Fistful of Tears" is a plea for mutual catharsis that's so raw it almost fails to communicate.

Maxwell promises more hopeful fare on his next installment, and overall "BLACKsummers' Night" does seem like the first movement in a larger piece that won't offer total satisfaction until it's completed. Still, for those who like their pop delicate and unapologetically deep, this is one for turning up loud and wallowing.

-- Ann Powers

Maxwell
"BLACKsummers' Night"
Sony
Four stars

 
Comments () | Archives (14)

Great album, love "Fistful of Tears"

Nice review. I've always loved Maxwell.

By the way, the R&B artist that you referenced is Jeremih, not Jeremiah. Common error.

Roz

Maxwell's most underrated song is "Drown Deep" off the Embyra album. It's a gorgeous song with lyrics to pine over, never mass released though. Check it out.

MAXWELL voice is so unique ...I Love Every Song...goes to my soul...please email when he is in Atlanta,GA I would love a front seat concert ticket..smile...for real..

My husband and I are true Maxwell fans from the very beginning and we are so disappointed in this album. His voice sounds nasally (like he had a cold when he was in the studio), the lyrics stink, and the music is nowhere reminiscent of his signature style! Pretty Wings was as good as this album got. Everything else sounds like every other wack R&B song out there! What happened to Maxwell and what mind-altering drug is everybody else on that makes them think that this album is so great?!?! I thought I was in the twilight zone reading all the critic and fan reviews. I love Maxwell but I will not tolerate this crap!

My husband and I are true Maxwell fans from the very beginning and we are so disappointed in this album. His voice sounds nasally (like he had a cold when he was in the studio), the lyrics stink, and the music is nowhere reminiscent of his signature style! Pretty Wings was as good as this album got. Everything else sounds like every other wack R&B song out there! What happened to Maxwell and what mind-altering drug is everybody else on that makes them think that this album is so great?!?! I thought I was in the twilight zone reading all the critic and fan reviews. I love Maxwell but I will not tolerate this crap!

Maxwell is back! I found this great photo gallery with pictures from the Maxwell show last night in NYC. I wish I was there, it was one of his first shows since the release of “Blacksummers’night”, which is amazing by the way. Check out the pictures here along with an article about the show:
http://tinyurl.com/maxwellnycpics
http://tinyurl.com/maxwellnycstory

so refreshing to hear talent. This album is great.

Blacksummer’snight is without fault or fail, a masterpiece. It is Maxwell’s greatest achievement to date, evoking much needed (and appreciated) emotion with strikingly raw character. Anyone who doesn’t feel something on first impact with ‘Bad Habits’ alone is walking this earth without a pulse.

Aside from the mature lyrical content and the incredible musical expression, what puts this above and beyond any concocted R&B album out today is the key ingredient no machine could synthesize: the RAW, unabashed, untainted emotion of EVERY song.

My favs: Bad Habits (unbelievable), Cold (sick), Help Somebody (dope), Love You (beautiful), Stop the World (ridiculous), Playing Possum (wow), Phoenix Rise (perfect ending).

Max is deep, humble, loving, giving, sensual, thoughtful and real. He is so much more than the music....never will there be another as grateful and caring to his fans. MAX WE LUV U!!!!!!! MFF

CHANELigible what are you smokin????

@ a fan

the whole Embrya album is underrated that was his best in my opinion.

Maxwell is too good to be true not only that but Stop The World is my new favorite. BTW he rocks live. He wipes his sweat off with yo panties. Ooooh wee he knows how to seduce.

I absolutely love this ENTIRE album. Maxwell continues to croon his way into my heart as one of my favorite artists ever. If you want to keep it hot, you must purchase this album!

maxwell is simply the best and has been,from jump.can't say few can relate anymore.it's out there,and so deserving of the gram noms.the la times music review,is so" on point " until it is ridiculous .so happy for maxwell.so happy more and more people are "getting it".thanks to maxwell,his band and his entire team, for putting it together.it feels so good.


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