when writers who get paid to string together lazy musical comparisons compile lists of the great breakup albums, one that seems to get shafted most of the time is marvin gaye’s here, my dear. and that’s a shame. because as breakup albums go, there aren’t many that cut deeper or are less steeped in clichés than this one.
as marvin’s marriage to anna gordy collapsed in the mid-70s, he found himself so financially drained by his lavish and drug-fueled lifestyle, he couldn’t even make child support payments. his attorney had a brainstorm — why not give anna half the royalties from the next album? marvin agreed, in part because he saw a great opportunity to make the worst album he could, as a gigantic fuck-you to everyone involved.
of course, this is marvin gaye we’re talking about. so it didn’t quite work out that way. in spite of his best efforts to make an embarrassingly bad album, he found his conflicted feelings for his ex-wife and his own pride wouldn’t let him off the hook that easy, and soon he was writing the most ambitious and nakedly autobiographical music of his life.
according to david ritz’s liner notes, marvin would often end a grueling day in court by going into the studio, smoking a joint, and channeling his frustration into the music. listening to the sprawling double-album, you probably get a better idea of why the marriage failed than the two people who were in it had at the time. marvin also attacks himself, admitting in songs like “anger” and the austere funk of “time to get it together” that his drug abuse and paranoia have taken their toll, and he’s caused his share of pain.
musically it’s all over the map — equal parts funky, jazzy, angry, pensive, arrogant, and mournful, with marvin playing all the keyboard/synth parts and providing every vocal track himself. it might be his most diverse album vocally, moving from smooth, soulful harmonies to guttural growls.
“when did you stop loving me, when did i stop loving you?” has always been the high point for me. a lot of the songs on the album don’t follow predictable structures, but this one is especially complex, with no chorus in sight, vocal harmonies that weave in and out like horns, and brilliant chord changes the likes of which we’ll probably never hear again outside the realm of jazz.
when he sings, “do you remember all of the bullshit, baby?” and twists his sweet voice into a vicious scream on the last two words, it’s the sound of a man speaking to a woman he loves and hates, blaming himself as much as he blames her for the way things turned out. though the album ends on a hopeful note with a song called “falling in love again”, a brief reprise of “when did i stop loving you…” undercuts the hard-won happiness with fear and uncertainty.
marvin almost didn’t release the album, feeling it was a little too close to the bone, but he was legally and contractually obligated to set it free. it didn’t sell well, with critics and consumers alike unsure of what to make of the songs. this wasn’t the “hey baby, i want to sex you up” marvin gaye seductively vamping in your ear. this was an attempt at unraveling the failure of his marriage and what he saw as his own failure as a human being, and fusing it to some wonderfully unpredictable and inventive music in the process.
after marvin’s death the album was re-evaluated, and now it’s recognized as one of his boldest and most uncompromising artistic statements. but it still seems to be one of the albums most people — even serious fans — haven’t heard. you won’t catch any of its songs on the radio.
maybe that’s as it should be. even if it grew out of a need to make money, this is music that doesn’t have a single commercial bone in its body. it’s deep marvin gaye. i hadn’t heard it in so long, i’d almost forgotten just how good it is.
find me a song with a more atmospheric groove than “is that enough?” and i will bow down before you.