Al Green – 1977 – The Belle Album
Read Reviews, Buy the Album or Download the Album for free
Most Al Green albums work their way over time into you; this one uncharacteristically reaches out and shakes you up, an odd result when one goes largely acoustic and goes for more or less the same quiet grooves that one had pursued for most of one’s career. But that’s how it is. Helps also that after splitting with Willie Mitchell last album Al decided that he needed a philosophical shift to match the musical shift he’s enacted. While God was never absent from Al’s previous albums, here He’s moved front and center thematically with Al leading the album telling Belle that it’s her that he wants, “but Him that I need.”
From there things stay largely secular, though tinged with the idea – especially in “Chariots of Fire” – that other realms are never far from Al’s mind and even can be read into some of the other lyrics. Musically it’s more assured (and varied) than Al’s last few records – stronger and more consistent than anything since Call Me in fact – and in “Georgia Boy” he’s found the perfect hot, hazy groove that feels all too short at seven minutes.
A great one and a significant transitory statement.
A1 Belle 4:51
A2 Loving You 3:34
A3 Feels Like Summer 3:43
A4 Georgia Boy 7:03
B1 I Feel Good 5:21
B2 All n All 3:40
B3 Chariots of Fire 3:51
B4 Dream 7:30
Al’s first album after severing ties with Willie Mitchell, and his most explicitly religious album to date. On the lovely title track, for instance, he finds himself caught between God and the woman he loves. And he really testifies there, portraying the pathos and confusion of such a situation in a wavering, unsure falsetto. It’s arguably the greatest vocal of his entire career. I’m agnostic (and therefore have never been caught in a God v. girlfriend debate, though if I was I’d probably end up staying with my girlfriend), but Al delivers the song in a way that makes me feel his pain. You needed proof that Al was one of the greatest soul singers of all time? Right there, on that song. I’m as conflicted about this album as Al is about the title song. On the one hand, it’s a fine album musically, even without the aide of Willie Mitchell.
It’s his most consistent collection of songs since Call Me, with a newfound emphasis on Al’s acoustic guitar playing, which turns out to be quite good. And his singing is in very good form. Not just on the title track. Everywhere. It’s especially prominent on “Lovin’ You“. And “I Feel Good” is one of Al’s funkiest songs ever. Maybe even his funkiest, period. And it turns out an acoustic guitar does sound good in a funk context. Who knew? On the other hand, the lyrics are not to my tastes. They are very religious. He had showed signs of this on Full of Fire, but here he goes head-on, with shout-outs to God, Heaven, and various other stuff that my agnosticness just doesn’t relate to. I can just ignore the lyrics, though.
But with this newfound love of God comes a newfound love of the electric organ. “Feels Like Summer” could’ve been a great tune, and he scores points for the bass, piano, and vocals. But the organ is wretched. I don’t care that it stays in the background. It still annoys me. It sounds like it was generated by very primitive MIDI technology, though I’m quite sure that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t sound as bad as the piano on “Don’t Stop Believin'” (because not much can sound as bad as the piano, or the everything else, of “Don’t Stop Believin'”), but it still sounds bad. And speaking of churches, it’s not surprising that one of the most explicitly religious tracks is one of the weakest: on “All n’ All,” he goes all-out gospel, declaring “Jesus is my all/he’s my all `n’ all/and he’ll hear my call.”
But if Jesus inspired him so much, wouldn’t he come up with a more imaginative rhyme scheme than “All/all/call?” At least it’s not bad, unlike “Chariots of Fire“, gospel-funk with the only Al Green vocal I don’t like. On top of that, the title looked like it was cribbed from some campy gladiator movie. Then there are the two long tracks. “Georgia Boy“, with a burbling bass vamp and spectacular acoustic guitar passages, is very successful. On the other hand, “Dream” recalls the two extended tracks from Al Green is Love in that it simply doesn’t develop, or end. The trick with this album is to ignore the lyrics (unless you’re religious, in which case you’ll probably love them) and the last two tracks, and focus on the music, because it’s quite impressive in that sense. So I would recommend it, even to the more secular-minded Al Green fans. I’d know, because I’m secular-minded and I enjoy it.
More Al Green albums in our back pages here