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Album review: Maxwell's 'BLACKsummers' Night'

July 6, 2009 |  6:34 pm

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

"BLACKsummers' Night"
Four stars