D’Angelo returns with a triumphant, unexpected album

dangelo

For most people the highlight of the past weekend was Sunday’s Super Bowl match up between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. For me, however, the peak moment came one day earlier, with a live performance by one of my generations most talented, and reclusive, musical masterminds.

When Richmond, Va native Michael Eugene Archer, better known by his stage name D’Angelo, stepped up to the microphone on the stage of Studio 8H in the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza last Saturday night, it marked the culmination of his recent return to the public spotlight. The Saturday Night Live appearance by D’Angelo and his band, The Vanguard, followed on the heels of the Dec. 14 release of his first album in 14 years, Black Messiah, an event that only a few months ago seemed all but inconceivable.

At this late date it’s easy to forget that the man was once considered the savior of traditional R&B, the gritty, bottom heavy but melodic sound that dominated black radio in the late 1960s and throughout the next decade, before giving way to the automated sounds of drum machines and synthesizers in the early 80s.

With his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, D’Angelo came on like a rawer, more blues based version of many of the performers in what was then known as the Neo-Soul movement, which looked back to the sounds of the past for inspiration, largely eschewing the modern touches that had drained much of the life out of what passed for R&B at the time.

But the young man would soon prove to be far less of a traditionalist and far more of a mad musical scientist in the tradition of Sly Stone or Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton, black musicians who, despite tasting pop success, chose to follow their own knotty, eccentric musical paths, often at the expense of their careers.

D’Angelo’s follow-up record, Voodoo, would take four and a half years to complete. Now hailed as a masterpiece, it features a far more mature voice, both musically and lyrically, with experimental touches and an almost surreally stretched out sense of tempo. The album also brought the reserved, almost painfully shy musician his first taste of mass success, with the slyly erotic video for the song “Untitled (How Does it Feel) garnering D’Angelo a new wave of female fans.

For better or worse, it was an image he chose to run from almost immediately. There would be no new music for another decade and a half. Over that period the once athletically built musician would become an alcoholic and frequent drug abuser, get arrested for soliciting an undercover female police officer, and be involved in a life threatening car wreck. And most unforgivable to many, he packed on a considerable amount of weight.

But according to fellow musicians, throughout those dark days D’Angelo never stopped working on the music, chasing new sounds, new rhythms and textures down whatever rabbit holes they happened to lead.

He also, apparently, became one hell of guitar player, based on the evidence of Black Messiah. I’m not sure any album could possibly be worth this kind of wait, but after multiple listens I’m still fascinated by the thing, which sounds like nothing else in the pop, R&B, or rock universe right now.

Black Messiah is a dense, narcotic album in the vein of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain and the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street. Voices and instruments melt into one another, with D’Angelo himself often buried in the mix, fighting to be heard along with every other instrument.

It’s a sound that doesn’t bow to any current trend in black music, or any other music for that matter. While the rock elements are more pronounced, jazz flourishes abound. The massed choral vocals that rise out of the murk harken back to D’Angelo’s youth spent playing keyboards at his father’s church, while the growling guitars pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the black guitar genius who built the space where Voodoo was recorded, Electric Lady Studios in New York.

Though the albums lyrics address the recent protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the true message of Black Messiah can be found in its tactile, off-kilter sound. This is clearly an album designed to be listened to from start to finish, with each song flowing into and building on those coming before and after. The hard funk of the opener “Ain’t That Easy” morphs into the avant-garde soundscapes and hyperventilating bass of “1,000 Deaths” which gives way to the uptempo R&B of “The Charade” and then we’re on to the mutant Dixieland jazz of “Sugah Daddy. And that’s just the first half of the album.

In the end, Black Messiah is an album to be listened to repeatedly and absorbed. It’s also an album that should be played very, very loud.

And based on the evidence of D’Angelo’s SNL appearance last weekend, it’s also an album that should be heard live. The man looked and sounded reborn, and his band, comprised of some of the finest musicians in the land, simply smoked.

After 14 years it’s damn good to have the man and his music among us again, alive, kicking and still chasing that elusive sound in his head.

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