D’Angelo & The Vanguard
by Chad Jewett
Even without the familiar backstory of D’Angelo’s fourteen year, post-Voodoo absence, Black Messiah would still feel like the product of great deliberation and ultra-fine attention to detail. Every fuzz-guitar chirp and dusty snare rattle is immaculate. D’Angelo’s still-unique ad-libs (the Virginia-born singer can stretch a syllable or whittle it down to a fraction with ease) and elastic voice contain magnitudes, from deep funk snarl to plush coo. Thick and idiosyncratic, richly textured and sumptuous in its sticky grooves, Black Messiah not only rewards a decade and a half’s patience, it also offers new and better riches with each listen, gradually sinking in and claiming your palette like some tour de force of slow cooking.
The songs wind, wander, and take their time, showcasing an attention to mood and soundscape that reminds one of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On or Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain — records that featured great songs, but kept them intriguingly half-buried by studio playfulness, stretched out arrangements, and production that left everything balanced and thus understatedly radical. These were dazzlingly challenging dispatches of communal soul that refused any expected hierarchies of sound. Choruses and the scruffy buzz of a Fender bass, traditional hooks and sudden aural interruptions — all were seemingly equally deserving of headphone space.
Like those records, D’Angelo ties together the personal and the political on Black Messiah, and a great deal of the album’s lyrical liberation shows up in the democratic sounds of the LP, where the production (handled by D’Angelo himself) positions each sonic grace note equidistant from everything else. “1000 Deaths” keeps its snapping bass and its fuzz guitar waves front-and-center, and leaves D’Angelo’s voice beneath a wave of analog haze, but that aural fog only serves to underline the fog-of-war anxiety of the song’s lyrics. All told, it’s a serious feat to produce a record that simultaneously sounds both viscerally live and carefully sculpted, and manages to make all of that a part of the album’s narrative. It’s just one of the many successes achieved on Black Messiah.
You can find that intersection of free-range grooves and analogue tangibility on album-opener “Ain’t That Easy.” The song unfolds atop a woozy 4/4 stomp that seems to repeatedly teeter perilously over the far limits at the back of the beat, propelled by D’Angelo’s weathered crunch of guitar and Questlove’s spartan bass-snare thud. Yet the song always operates in its own pocket and its sense of joyful looseness is addicting. Harmonies swell and ebb with the soulful eccentricity of George Clinton, but the song also has a killer chorus and for all its studied shapelessness and hard grit, “Ain’t That Easy” keeps thumping forward.
Elsewhere, “The Charade” carries some of the shimmering lightness that characterized the more optimistic material of mid-70s Marvin Gaye, all soul-pitched sitars and rock-steady grooves that clear space for sudden mini-hooks and casual major-key loveliness. And like Gaye, D’Angelo cleverly uses the pop radiance of “The Charade” to buoy the song’s statements of emancipatory politics: “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only get outlined in chalk / Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked / Revealing at the end of the day the charade.” The album’s liner notes underline its urgency: “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.” D’Angelo has even noted that the album’s release date (which came as a welcome surprise in December) was pushed up to offer ballast and support to the protests surrounding the unlawful deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Indeed, it’s hard not to hear an apt precariousness in D’Angelo’s final verse amidst the thick, gummy grooves of “Prayer”: “And all this confusion around me / Give me peace / I believe that love …”. Tellingly, the singer refuses to end the sentence.
Elsewhere, the folk bounce of “The Door” comes closest to recalling Voodoo gems like “Devil’s Pie”, but re-shapes the self-propelling hook of the latter with Delta blues slide guitar and a dreamy sense of atmosphere and casual pop smarts. It’s the one song that feels relatively breezy and impromptu on an album that otherwise smacks of utter perfectionism, so that “The Door” — with its airy whistled hook and sparse arrangement – arrives like a dispatch of optimism on a record that takes its rugged realism very seriously. Black Messiah ends with the Al Green soul of “Another Life”, all curling Muscle Shoals guitars and slow-phase chord changes (and more of that “Sign, Sealed, Delivered” sitar). The song operates within the slinky registers of the classic 70s R&B love song as D’Angelo coos, seduces, and pitches his voice between skyscraping falsetto’s and heavy bottom-end ad-libs. But then there are striking lyrical passages like “I’m not surprised to find that angels compete”. Or “The candy coated thoughts that drift through my sleep”. Or “I just wanna take you with me to secret rooms in the mansions of my mind”. Co-written by Kendra Foster, “Another Life” ends the album by convincing you of another kind of innovation motivating Black Messiah, one that manages to both revel in the evergreen beauty of classic soul while finding new vitality in subtle innovation and impressionist poetry. Black Messiah metabolizes R&B modernists like Funkadelic and Sly Stone, then looks for what else is out there, beyond even them. It’s no mistake that D’Angelo has dubbed his band “The Vanguard”. They’ve produced an album that operates at the absolute avant-garde of modern soul music.