Thu, Dec 18, 2014 - Page 11 News List

CD Reviews

By Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica  /  NY Times News Service

Black Messiah, by D’Angelo

Black Messiah



D’Angelo’s 14-year vanishing act ended decisively on midnight as Monday began when he released Black Messiah, his first new album since 2000. It’s not the kind of larger-than-life pop event and sharply etched public statement that Beyonce delivered as last year’s December surprise. Black Messiah is a knotty, inward-looking, musicianly album made to reveal itself slowly. It doesn’t leap out of speakers; it oozes and bubbles, waiting for a listener to be drawn in. As it does, the pleasures and rewards keep growing.

With his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, and a slowly wrought follow-up, Voodoo, in 2000, D’Angelo took upon himself the mission of soul music’s most heroic figures: to be simultaneously an individual, a social conscience, a carnal being and a spiritual one. And, not incidentally, to be both steeped in musical history and ready to transform it, to reach for ever deeper grooves. He succeeded — so well, perhaps, that expectations for his next step grew overwhelming. To call the new album Black Messiah is to hint at a second coming, but the album’s notes insist, instead, that “We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.”

Black Messiah follows a decade of public silence in which D’Angelo grappled with drugs, alcohol and a 2005 car crash that broke half his ribs. Stardom also shook him up, particularly the way he was treated as a sex symbol after he flaunted his body on the cover of Voodoo and in the video for Untitled (How Does It Feel), which lingered over his six-pack abs. He returned to performing, relying on his old songs, only in 2012, when the recording of Black Messiah was well underway.

D’Angelo didn’t spend those 14 years staying current with pop and R&B. Although the album is credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, it’s no accident that two of its tracks are titled Back to the Future (Parts I and II), with the refrain, “I just want to go back.” From its sound, Black Messiah could have been released at the same time as Voodoo. The album notes pointedly state that “All of the recording, processing, effects and mixing was done in the analog domain using tape and mostly vintage equipment.”

That deliberately retro approach — there’s even some electric sitar — is anything but austere. D’Angelo simply resumes his mission on Black Messiah. Funk, jazz, rock and gospel are deeply entangled in music that moves at its own wayward pace, harking back to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and to Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life but fully personalized. In layered vocals that aren’t always easy to decipher, D’Angelo sings about being an ardent lover, a kinky seducer, a soldier, an environmentalist, a humble worshipper and a bitter social observer who observes, in The Charade, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” The album is all over the place, in ways both impulsive and profound.

While making the album may have been torturous, the music frolics like one fantasy jam session after another — sessions where D’Angelo can summon strings and horns out of nowhere, multiply his voice, change key on a whim and melt down and reconfigure the entire ensemble on the spot. The most immediately scrutable song (and one that he had been playing live), Really Love, somehow manages to entwine flamenco, swing, hip-hop and a responsive string arrangement behind its declaration of affection. Till It’s Done (Tutu), which worries about “carbon pollution heating up the air,” is slippery, polytonal funk sung in a casual falsetto. 1000 Deaths, with lyrics about a soldier facing battle, places bluesy guitar and a cackling clarinet amid a distorted barrage of drums, while The Door, urging a lover not to “lock yourself out,” goes rural with slide guitar, tambourine and a lot of whistling.

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