In an age of immediacy the idea of waiting sounds hopelessly outdated. But that said, there is something to be said about anticipation. Such is the case with Maxwell’s new album. Yes, after an extended hiatus the sexy ambassador of soul has returned with a brand new look and a fresh yet deliciously vintage sound. The same artist who brought us classic songs like “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and “Lifetime” (not to mention the unforgettably ethereal cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”) is back with a challenging, mature, sensual, courageous and emotionally open album entitled, BLACKsummers’night. BLACKsummers’night, the first installment of a trilogy, is a collection well worth the wait.
His fourth studio album and first in eight years, BLACKsummers’night is the sound of an artist taking the commitment to his craft and the conversation with his audience that much further. Needless to say, it is a conversation that’s been overdue; but as the soft-spoken, multi-platinum artist sees it, in order to come back it was necessary to step away. “I wanted to return to ‘what was the promise?’” Maxwell offers. “What did my music and creativity speak of to people? For me, coming back to that promise was kind of where my heart was really gravitating towards. I didn’t intentionally step away from all of it, but I just wanted to…live my life a little bit, and then be able to make music with that pure experience again.”
He might have been out of the spotlight, but Maxwell along with long time collaborator and friend Hod David, had begun crafting BLACKsummers’night several years ago. The album is the first installment of a trilogy entitled BLACKSUMMERS’NIGHT. BLACK is a much darker but soulful compilation, SUMMERS’ leans more toward the gospel side and NIGHT is more a cool collection of slow jams. By late 2008, the process of polishing and shaping the album was full on. Though having much of his creative team on board, Maxwell still approached the creative process with extreme caution and the painstaking meticulousness of a true genius. “Every time I’d get in the studio it would be like am I trying to outdo this last record? I just wanted to make a really good record.” Of course, what Maxwell’s notoriously modest character failed to warn was that what he was creating was more than “good” but rather (like his other projects) a timeless piece of work.
Composed of nine indelible songs BLACKsummers’night finds Maxwell exploring life with a bold and purposeful sensuality unmistakably his own. Opening with a delicate hint of wistful chimes, the first single, “Pretty Wings,” is nostalgic, (“your face will be the reason I smile”) and yet undeniably passionate. “It’s about the last relationship I had,” Maxwell describes. “How you meet the person of your dreams but at the wrong time. She was a serious muse and the song is a testament to what I wanted to say and say, to her.” “I can be a bit emotionally handicapped” he elucidates, “but through music, I can say what I want to.” Another of the album’s more persuasive songs is “Stop the World.” A rhythmic rush of desire, Maxwell describes “Stop the World” as “having corporal relations.” “That’s what I call having sex…” he unabashedly reveals “…and that’s stopping the world.” …Mhmmm.
Equally personal is “Fistful of Tears.” Pushed along by a sturdy and incessant piano, Maxwell, shifting from those oh so recognizable falsettos and baritones, rides the melody like a man both possessed by and resigned to his feelings. “It’s kind of about wanting to leave the industry and a relationship, but then realizing that I should give it a last try. Don’t let it go.” Then there’s the jazz thumping “Cold.” Peppered by a funked up horn section and wrapped in a moist honey soaked groove, this fun, head bopping track finds Maxwell asking the eternal lovers question, “why do you like me like you do?” It’s very sexy stuff.
On June 24th Maxwell galvanized an unsuspecting audience at the 2008 BET Awards with a live rendition of Al Green’s classic song, “Simply Beautiful.” It would be his first live performance in seven years. Without his signature afro or silk mono-chromatic suit, it was hard to tell if this six-foot tall body was merely a mirage or indeed the man that for so many years had left legions of devoted fans wanting more. But after uttering the first gentle lyric (“If I gave you my love…”) everyone remembered and so did Maxwell. The unforgettable performance became one of the most talked about in 2008. It left each audience member (regular folk and superstar celebrities alike) rejoicing that unquestionably authentic soul sound that was denied to them for far too long. Overwhelmed and inspired by the ecstatically warm response, Maxwell decided to boldly hit the road, with no album, nor concrete plan to follow. Less than two months later the artist announced the launch of his much speculated 2008 BLACKSUMMERS’NIGHT tour. Maxwell initiated the tour with his first concert at South Africa’s Macufe Music Festival. Maxwell sold out 10,000 seats and was given honorary South African citizenship. The show, which aired on “BET’s Access Granted,” was not only his first concert (as well as on-air interview) in seven years; it was his first show ever in South Africa.
In the U.S., all 144,000 tickets for the tour sold out within minutes of their on-sale date. An overwhelming demand for Maxwell caused the original 26-date tour to be extended to 33 dates. He performed in all the major cities including New York; selling out the renowned Radio City Music Hall and uptown New York’s 3,000 seat theater, The United Palace. New York Times writer Jon Caramanica asserts, “Maxwell has something that his emulators lack: complexity…some of the most potent moments [at Radio City] came in the pregnant spaces between notes, with Maxwell managing to hold a feeling even with his mouth shut.”
For Maxwell the opportunity to get back on stage and receive such an enormous response, especially without an album to support, was revelatory and further inspired him to complete his oft delayed album. “That experience is something for which I am beyond grateful. To be able to take a risk and to have that genuine interest from people is so rare. It actually made making this record even more precious. It was that pure energy. It was like, ‘oh, this is why I do it.’ It’s because people care about real music and they’ll wait for you.”
In 1996, a then 23-year old Brooklyn born phenomenon took the music world by storm with his debut, Urban Hang Suite. (He signed to Columbia Records at the tender age of 21, already having composed more than 300 songs before signing on to the major label.) The critically acclaimed CD received a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album and went on to achieve double platinum status. Maxwell’s MTV: Unplugged (1997) achieved gold status with his live rendition of “This Woman’s Work.” He was heralded as the future of soul music and proved his staying power when he followed up with 1998’s platinum seller Embrya. In 1999 Maxwell’s single, “Fortunate” (off of the LIFE soundtrack) became Billboard magazine’s number one hit of the year. Maxwell’s third album, Now (2001) debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart; selling 300,000 copies its maiden week and eventually also reaching double platinum status. The album was appropriately described by Entertainment Weekly as “A velvetined gauntlet thrown at the feet of today’s bling-bling-obsessed R&B pack.”
To hear Maxwell explain it, as much as his fans were waiting for him, he was waiting for them-and in the process of finding himself. “Sometimes I can’t believe I do this because you’re living your life. Going to the corner store, taking out the garbage and the next thing you know you’re on stage at Radio City Music Hall. It’s such a humbling thing and you’d think it would make my ego go out of control but I feel humility. Like this is why I need to do this. It’s not about your ego. It’s about celebrating your opportunity and the blessing to work and the joy you can possibly bring to people. That’s how it all resonated with me.”
A constant throughout BLACKsummers’night is its live and often raw sound. The entire album was recorded with an extraordinary live ten-piece band. He is taking it back to when a solo genius artist offered music that was close to perfection. No synthesizers, no duets. Just Maxwell bare and in the flesh ready to give old fans and new ones a sensory experience that he never fails to bring.