When Brooklyn-native Maxwell returned to the music scene seven years ago with 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, his wildly-anticipated follow-up to 2001’s bedroom-eyed soul of Now, it felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Though he took his first hiatus from music in 2002 for personal and artistic inspiration, there was a decade-long harboring of doubt hovering over the future of the alternative soul movement and whether Maxwell himself wanted to continue shaping his legacy inside of it. The once-omnipresent genre labeled as “neo-soul,” which paid homage to the pioneering themes and musical flourishes that defined 1970s soul, was being denounced as non-existent by several of its leading figures. Some pushed their artistry further from the confinements of the genre, exploring new sonic approaches and textures. Others decided to be reclusive altogether as Maxwell did, providing no indication of when they would return. Either way, they all paid an inevitable price.
But at the end of the Noughties, a decade during which Maxwell mysteriously withered right as it began, he miraculously had something to say and new treasures to reveal. It felt deeply inspiring too, especially amidst a period when much of soul music regressed from live instrumentation, musical opulence, and organic emotionality, transitioning into an 106 and Park-minded abyss, filled with sanitized messages and spirit that populated the marketplace. A tightly structured set of contemporary soul, accented with assured quiet storm sensibility, BLACKsummers’night found the deeply affectionate crooner embracing and exploring the pleasures and ebbs of intimacy, with a certain emotional resonance that felt neither familiar nor revelatory for him.
It was a breath of fresh air knowing that the man, who undeniably redefined romantic-tinged soul in the pantheon of contemporary black music, repositioned himself as an advocate for natural authenticity in black music that became greatly passé and overly-compromised for a decade after he ascended. Stunningly, the world was strongly receptive of his reemergence, as BLACK granted Maxwell his second number-one charter on the Billboard album charts while garnering widespread critical acclaim and winning two Grammy Awards.
Still, something else felt strikingly different about all of it.
As if his signature, beautifully-coiled afro being reduced to a fresh fade cut didn’t inform anything already, Maxwell was bidding a farewell to the past innuendos and pretensions that fueled his persona and musical touch from the very beginning. Absent was the mythos that he surrounded himself with, in a way designed to strengthen his ambiguity as a man and musician that often left even his most dedicated followers to ponder the romanticism in his personal life.
Already deemed a classy sex symbol, reminiscent of pioneering forefathers Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and Prince, he possessed a mature yet conservative image, while letting that distinction fly free and proudly. The new music was stripped of the atmospheric depth and conceptual underpinnings of Maxwell’s greatest records, his 1996 debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and its 1998 follow-up Embrya. Instead, he favored a more straightforward, conventional approach that found him conforming to the simplistic romantic trappings his core audience and record company short-handedly defined with contemporary soul.
After all, he wasn’t the freewheeling 23 year-old that burst onto the scene with the sultry sentimentality of “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” This was an assuredly humble version of Maxwell that lived a myriad of experiences, both good and bad. But this time, he only existed in the moment, rarely capturing the full depth of romantic desire as he once did. In the midst of his trademark, smooth-as-wine falsetto was a nuanced strain in his subtle-toned vocal register, which rode atop eclectically unhinged melodic structures. There was a pronounced spirited bent to the eroticism he explored; however, it didn’t come from the traditional cerebral style he was typically known for. His impassioned conviction brimmed with tremendous regret, heartbreak, and longing. For him, when love hurt, it hurt so humanely.
Fair enough, Maxwell reached a visceral precedent for merging vulnerability with fragility in his artistry, something he had only dabbled with sparingly on previous albums. Perhaps the long eight-year hiatus actually worked in his favor, resulting in him being the definitive lovelorn figure of contemporary R&B.
Then, he vanished again for seven years. Only this time, it wasn’t as discreetly mysterious, considering he scored another musical surprise with a notable appearance on Alicia Keys’ 2012 sensuous R&B hit “The Fire We Make.” With a series of personal and creative dilemmas that delayed the second installment of the promised trilogy series, Maxwell had much to live up to. Patience has always been of the essence with anything involving Maxwell, as time is immeasurable in his world.
Thankfully, the patience has paid off as his long-awaited fifth studio album, blackSUMMERS’night has finally arrived. Similar to its predecessor, SUMMERS’ is largely a Maxwell and Hod David production. For the first time in 15 years since 2001’s Now, former collaborator Stuart Matthewman contributes production and songwriting on two of the album’s compositions. In the tradition of Maxwell affairs, of-the-moment guests, producers, and collaborators are absent here—even though jazz pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold make tasteful contributions, adding dynamic colors to the musical palette. Musically, the album possesses dazzling stylistic reach, fusing hefty doses of electronica, funk, soul, blues, alternative rock, and ambient jazz in eleven of the album’s compositions (sans the concluding ocean soundscape “Night.”).
As expected with Maxwell’s music, the combination of musical subtlety and professional craftsmanship reaches a new peak here. A consummate perfectionist, he plots each sonic move with tender love and care, allowing every song to breathe with its own texture and character. Deviating from the traditional modern soul focus that defined 2001’s Now and its successor BLACK, there is a greater emphasis on esotericism, which gives the song structure an expansive edge. Immediacy is still present within the musical approach, but Maxwell retains the sonic charms that made Embrya and to a lesser extent, Urban Hang Suite superbly revelatory. Not to mention, his vocal dexterity is at the center of everything, showing intense emotionality and sincerity.
While there is no underlying thematic core, SUMMERS’ familiarly explores the varying degrees of lust, romance, and sentimentality. As Maxwell alluringly croons in the atmospheric romp of “1990X,” “Lay here closely / beside me / Feel my heart / as it’s pounded / I can climax with reason / Cause we’re grown and we own it,” it’s unquestionably clear that Maxwell is madly in love and willing to mingle. The strains of romance are still evident, but instead of squarely wallowing in the heartbreak and regret that was greatly empathized with in BLACK, he once again relies on his spiritual virtues for salvation and healing by looking inwardly. Overall, he has an assured sense of all of the obsessions, solitude, and intuitions a relationship can entail, even if he loses it altogether.
Maxwell has always been known for setting a certain mood in his music, and right out of the gate, he opens this album rather jubilantly. Coincidentally, it can be concluded that the album’s opener “All the Ways Love Can Feel” picks up right where BLACK’s lone instrumental closer “Phoenix Rise” left off. With its spacey, jazz-funk groove evoking late-1970s disco hedonism, Maxwell awakens deep and sincere emotions throughout the song. Neither forced nor abrasive, Maxwell places the listener right in the center of his comforting lure, inviting you to explore his higher pursuits of love. As his breathy falsetto smoothly glides atop the song’s thrusting groove, he declares “Class is in session tonight / Show me the lessons of your life.” This is far less about physical love, as it may abundantly imply at first. He is on a spiritual plane, with no sign of pulling back.
The album’s lead single “Lake by the Ocean” plays as an inspirational paean to love. The most pop-oriented of the album’s eleven compositions, “Ocean” shows a relaxed side of Maxwell, delectably escaping his heartbreak to openly embrace the beauty of romance, nature, and the universe.
The flashy “III” finds Maxwell riding a spunky pop-funk groove, reminiscent of Musicology/3121-era Prince, complete with its tight horn cadences. Occasionally known for his awkwardly vague lyricism, the song’s defining line: “I want a Michelle Obama lady” will certainly be greeted with hilarity, but the song’s energetic groove sweeps you from the first listen.
While moments of carefree bliss and carnality are at play, SUMMERS’ is far from a blissful album. Introspection is at the helm of the album’s most lovelorn songs. “Fingers Crossed” employs a hooky soul groove, with Maxwell offering his heartfelt feelings on a union hanging at the seams. The hypnotic jazz-soul dub of “The Fall” has him longing for the romance he once had, admitting that his intimate woes change with seasons. The two Stuart Matthewman-assisted numbers, the bluesy “Lost” details the regret he succumbs to at the end of a romance, while the soft rock-oriented “Listen Hear” focuses on his insecurity problems. “Gods” is melodically graceful and emotionally arresting in the same instance, with him being haunted by his lover’s betrayal.
The beauty of blackSUMMERS’night rests on the fact that Maxwell continues to pursue progressive territory, without missing a beat. In the third decade of his career, he remains indebted to the pursuits of romance, soaking up the full depth of its varying attributes. Instead of relying on the traditional musical flourishes of its predecessor, SUMMERS’ finds Maxwell crafting music from an impressively explorative space, making it his most musically expansive and invigorating album since 1998’s Embrya. Every composition has its own respective canvas with broad strokes and intricate detail, largely because of the passionate instrumentation and pacing of the music. It’s what suits the narratives of love that Maxwell conveys.
Twenty years ago, when 23-year-old Maxwell affectionately reassured the wonderment of his lover, lamenting “Shouldn’t I realize / You’re the highest of the high” on his breakthrough single, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” it was his defining benchmark. Twenty years later, the confident 43-year-old gives a transcendent nod to that sentiment in “Of All Kind” with “You’re like a God in my mind / You’re the highest height / Of all kind.” No matter where he chooses to venture next, Maxwell’s spiritual love will outlive all time and dimension.
Notable Tracks: “1990X” | “All the Ways Love Can Feel” | “Fingers Crossed” | “Of All Kind” | “The Fall”
SEE Maxwell on tour this summer