Thirty five years after his death, The Prince of Motown Marvin Gaye has posthumously released a new album that was recorded in 1972, the year in between his landmark records What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. There is an obvious separation between these two records, although they were only released two years apart. The first of the two, 1971’s What’s Going On, broke new ground for Gaye in the topical and political content as well as the melodic themes that flow throughout the album and create such a tight, cohesive record. The 1973 follow-up Let’s Get It On, as illustrated from the title, showed that Gaye intended to leave the politics behind as soon as he approached them, and it’s full of buttery love songs and just-subtle-enough-for-radio sexy hits. The contrast of these two albums begs the question: what happened to Marvin Gaye in 1972? The exact answer to this is known to only a privileged few, but we may speculate on what caused this drastic change in lyrical direction. What’s Going On was not only a commercial success, but with it’s political anthems and descriptions of life below the poverty line, it seemed to show that Gaye was moving in a more substantive and challenging direction. It could be that this record’s huge success put so much pressure on Gaye that he shied away from trying to produce a true successor. But perhaps not? You’re The Man is proof that he did try for a successor, but for unknown doubts or conflicts, it was left on the shelf. You’re The Man fills in the gap between the hard-hitting and experimental Gaye and the sugary sweet all appealing Gaye of the surrounding years. It shows both the political side of his lyrics and the R&B love anthems. It illustrates the transition from peace-loving protester to pacified lovemaker. Tracks like “You’re the Man” and “The World is Rated X” are upbeat, groovy, and cutting, leaning more towards his political side. On the title track he contemplates why a candidate would make the right decisions: for the people’s good, or just for votes. “People marching on Washington / Why not hear what they have to say / Because the tables just might turn against you, brother / Set around Election Day.” Another side of the album is the buttery ballads like “Symphony” or “My Last Chance,” where he style and lyrics go into full love sick seduction. “Like violins, music begins / It starts to swell, then I can tell / That pretty soon we going to be in tune / Our hearts will be in perfect harmony.”
Both sides of Gaye’s music are showcased in peak form. His vocals are clear and soaring as ever, and he expresses his emotional range from the romantic ballads to the frustrated political cuts. There is plenty of instrumental range here too, as we get classic dreamy grooves with latin drums on songs like “Where Are We Going?” This is along with more unusual sounds, such as the ethereal, vibrating guitar intro on Piece of Clay, where Gaye pleads with authority figures to let the youth be free. There’s also the surprisingly spooky and psychedelic “Christmas In The City,” an instrumental cut which appears out of nowhere in the last leg of the album.
There are plenty of great songs on You’re The Man, that feel like they would have been hits in 1972, some containing the emotional heft of the best of Marvin Gaye. The themes are largely familiar to anyone who has dipped into his discography, and most of the sounds as well. Despite the abundance of good quality tracks, the 17 song album is dragged down by longer cuts in the second half which find Marvin riffing on the same verses over and over. It is decidedly not the concise and cohesive experience of What’s Going On, as it is not truly united in either its sound or message. With instrumental tracks and remixes, it can’t help but feel like an obscure compilation rather than an album, even if there’s a lot to like about it.