It was not all that long ago that a self-imposed eight-year hiatus by an R&B singer was tantamount to quitting the game. Labels wouldn’t have it; fans would forget.
Singer Maxwell’s retreat for most of the decade into “pedestrian life” has done nothing to hurt his career. BLACKSummer’snight, his first release since 2001’s Now just entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 1 with sales of 316,000.
Maxwell’s re-arrival happens at a precipitous time, amid a listless modern soul scene where hardly anyone can resist the Auto-Tune button. We’ll call BLACKSummer’snight a solid return, especially welcome considering contemporary R&B’s current state of affairs.
The 36-year-old Brooklyn-bred artist is a genuine singer in the classic mold of a Marvin Gaye. His stock-in-trade is smoldering restraint, but he can grasp for the rasp and turn up the passion when called for.
Halfway into the acoustic-guitar-based “Playing Possum” Maxwell slides into falsetto and sings “I’m beggin’ you, sugar, have some leniency/ Call the President and ask him, baby, to pardon me.” Although the lyrics may be precious, it’s clear we’re experiencing a singer of real substance. (Often it’s not the words, but how you sing them.) Then he soars even higher into a series of woo-hoos, setting the song’s emotion thermostat on rapture. And like the great soul singers of yore, Maxwell’s melismatic fills, punctuations and asides are as vital to the performances as the lines of lyrics themselves.
The relative weakness of BLACKsummer’snight is the songwriting. The album’s eight romantic laments of varying tempo (and, inexplicably, one closing instrumental) pretty much bleed together. But the arrangements are a wash of invigorating air, played as they are by a 10-piece band that gives the tracks a live-in-the-studio quality. Creamy horn arrangements caress, organs swirl, guitars slink, the remarkably organic drums lay down supple grooves. Maxwell sings through a microphone and his voice emerges without a trip through a computer program. The music is real. (Columbia)