Saturday, 20 April 2019

Visions of the Self: Rembrandt and Now at Gagosian, London

Self-Portrait with Two Circles, circa 1665

Visions of the Self: Rembrandt and Now review – the master upstages everyoneGagosian Grosvenor Hill, London
Theatrical, comical, tawdry and tenuous – self-portraits by the likes of Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman sit alongside Rembrandt’s great late painting, but he is simply the most present

Adrian Searle
The Guardian
11 Apr 2019

Rembrandt’s late self-portrait sits in its glazed frame in the centre of a large grey wall at Gagosian’s central London Grosvenor Hill gallery. Usually it hangs in Kenwood House on the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, sharing the galleries with Gainsborough’s wonderful portrait of Lady Howe, a Vermeer, and assorted 18th- and 19th-century paintings of varying qualities. But no matter. Here it is again, on a grey wall all by itself, with no bits of furniture getting in the way, on loan from English Heritage. But Rembrandt is far from alone here. His circa 1665 Self-Portrait with Two Circles (not the painting’s original title, if it ever had one) shares a whole gallery with much more recent artists, many of whom are part of Gagosian’s stable. For now, I have my back to them.

I have been looking at this painting for more than 40 years. The light on the face and cap, the two partial circles on the wall behind him (perhaps the outline of an otherwise unpainted Mappa Mundi), and what Picasso called “that elephant eye of his”. Rembrandt is the elephant in the room. Even out of sight, around the corner or in a different part of the gallery, you know he’s there, when you’re looking at a Gerhard Richter, a Richard Prince, or a funny painting by Dora Maar. You want Picasso? Here’s his last self-portrait, the skull grinning through in a 1972 sketch. The charcoal scribble across the mouth is almost a duplicate of the scratching on Rembrandt’s collar, a singular moment in the portrait where Rembrandt picked up his painting knife or used the back end of his brush to scratch through the wet paint with a sort of impetuous haste.

Rembrandt shares a room with Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Robert Mapplethorpe and a small Andy Warhol. Another, later Warhol, a vast self-portrait of the artist in a fright wig, glowers across at Rembrandt from the adjacent space. Bacon and Freud both look forced. Both Andy, in that wig with its electrified nylon hair, and Rembrandt, in his smock and cap and furs, have dressed for the occasion. Self-portraiture is always a performance, even when it affects not to be. Perhaps most of all when it tries to be as natural and as candid as it possibly can. This entire show is a piece of theatre. With his tawdry, threadbare magnificence Rembrandt upstages everyone, and there’s quite a crowd. You want Howard Hodgkin (why would anybody)? – here’s a dabbled over confection, consigned to the entrance lobby. You want Damien Hirst? Check – a photo of the young artist gleeful, next to a severed head. There’s plenty of mortality here: Robert Mapplethorpe, sick with Aids, with his skull-topped cane; Georg Baselitz’s Grosse Nacht, a compellingly nasty 1962-3 figure, hand on cock, whose limbs appear diseased. This is from the best period of Baselitz’s work. You want Christopher Wool’s giant Rorschach-like head-blob thing? What for?
Untitled #220, 1990, by Cindy Sherman

A few works directly nod to Rembrandt. A Jeff Koons copy of another 1642-3 self-portrait, with a blue gazing ball, is kept, sensibly, out of sight of the real thing. Glenn Brown and Cindy Sherman ape an old-master look and dress. Brown’s red-nosed slithery version of an El Greco portrait, with frighteningly filmy eyes, and Sherman’s photograph, with a prosthetic mask, both attempt a kind of time-slip. Chicago painter Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s 2019 self-portrait “After Rembrandt” also uses Rembrandt’s fur jacket and chemise-like shirt. It is all a bit tenuous, really. And anyway, Rembrandt always wins. Not that it was ever a contest, because that would be pointless. It would also be spurious to look for a contemporary equivalent to Rembrandt, because there isn’t one. Somehow his self-portrait has a kind of presentness – in the here and now – much else lacks, which is a kind of marvellous riddle.

• At Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London, 12 April to 18 May

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/apr/11/visions-of-the-self-rembrandt-and-now-review-the-master-upstages-everyone

Friday, 19 April 2019

Wednesday night's set lists at The Habit, York


Set 1: -
Breathe
You've Got A Friend


Set 2: -
Need Your Love So Bad
You're Sixty
Birds


On a quiet night in York (calm before the Easter weekend mayhem) there were plenty of punters and just enough players to get us through the night. In Ron's absence - darn sarf - I was given the honour of closing out the evening. Dave from Leeds did a tribute to the recently departed Scott Walker - Joanna - and a song of his own about climate change. Local Dave played songs by Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Harmonica virtuoso Tim (pictured with host Simon backing him on guitar) was two days back from a tour of the Mississippi Delta, steeped in the history of the blues. For my opening song I reached back to 1973 and the opening track from Pink Floyd's classic The Dark Side Of The Moon (minus the Speak To Me intro). I invited taxi-driver Chris to take the mike for the last song and added harmonies to Neil Young's Birds. Dave, Debbie and I provided the after-show unplugged entertainment until close of play....another enjoyable evening at The Habit. See you next week!

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Sports Direct Mug


Courtesy of Private Eye.

Monday, 15 April 2019

A House Through Time - Ravesnworth Terrace, Summerhill, Newcastle

Image result for a house through time summerhill
A House Through Time
Series 2: Episode 1

In the first episode, David Olusoga pays his first visit to the house. It is a Georgian end-of-terrace property on Ravensworth Terrace, in Newcastle upon Tyne’s gritty* West End. The current owners of the house, Damian and Suzi, know little of their home’s history, but with its grand fireplaces and lofty proportions, the house offers a tantalising glimpse into the past.

Tracing the house’s early history, David discovers the original deeds revealing that the house was built by local developer William Mather and completed around 1824. Its first long-term resident was local lawyer and family man William Stoker. Searching the records for evidence of William Stoker, David is surprised to discover that he is named in an 1835 report in the local newspaper. The article tells of a theft from the house in which two teenage boys have stolen a pair of umbrellas, ‘the property of Mr William Stoker’. In today’s terms, this would be a trivial offence, but knowing how harsh the penalties were in the 19th century, even for petty crimes, David is keen to know more. Exploring the boys’ background David discovers the motive for the crime: poverty. The pair were ‘without visible means of subsistence’ and had exchanged the umbrellas for ‘two shillings and a piece of bread’.

David then meets historian Gaynor Halliday, who reveals that William Stoker actively pursued the case to trial. It was he who would have organised their arrest, found witnesses and brought them to court. The case papers reveal that the boys were found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.

As the boys were travelling to Australia, Stoker was working his way up the ranks of Newcastle society. He was elected to the post of town coroner, investigating suspicious deaths – drownings, industrial accidents and suicides. His first case is to investigate a man who has ‘drunk himself to death’. But there is a surprising twist to the story. David discovers that Stoker himself is a drinker. His death certificate reveals that he dies from chronic alcoholism aged 54.

The next resident David discovers is Joshua Alder, who moves into Ravensworth Terrace in 1841. Having recently sold his business as a cheesemonger, he has moved into the house with his sister Mary. But as David discovers, Joshua isn’t planning a life of leisure. The sale of his business is funding a new career as a scientist. He is a member of Newcastle’s renowned Literary and Philosophical Society, giving lectures, writing books about natural history, and rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scientists of the age. David travels to the Northumberland coast to meet marine biologist Professor Peter Davis, sailing out to sea to observe the marine life that Joshua studied. But Joshua’s new life depends on the practical support of his sister. As design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan explains, it is Mary Alder who would have ensured the smooth running of the house while Joshua continued his scientific work.

And Joshua would soon rely on her even more. The devastating financial crash of 1857 brings down the local bank, taking Joshua’s savings with it. Now penniless, he and Mary are forced to leave Ravensworth Terrace, and move into a smaller house nearby, where Mary is the householder, supporting her brother financially. But this is not the end of Joshua’s story. David discovers that his friends in the scientific community lobby the Government on his behalf. Joshua is awarded a Civil List pension, saving him from penury and allowing him to continue his studies until his death in 1867.

The next residents of Ravensworth Terrace are well-to-do newly-wed couple Nicholas and Mary Sarah Hardcastle. Nicholas is a doctor recently appointed medical officer to the local workhouse, treating the poorest people in Newcastle society. David meets expert Caroline Rance to find out more. Caroline reveals that soon after his arrival, Hardcastle was caught up in a neglect scandal. A group of his patients, young girls suffering from the skin disease scabies, were discovered to be locked in a tiny room without access to proper sanitation. Hardcastle is investigated but cleared of any misconduct. He continues working at the workhouse and takes on an additional role as surgeon to the local gaol. The family move to a grand house in the centre of Newcastle where they have four children. But tragedy strikes when their daughter contracts scarlet fever and loses her hearing as a result.

Then some years later, Hardcastle is engulfed in a second scandal. An epidemic sweeps through the workhouse again - this time scarlet fever, the same disease that affected Hardcastle’s own daughter. After just nine days, nearly 200 people are affected, and two have died. Fearing the epidemic will spread beyond the workhouse walls, the authorities launch an inquiry where workhouse nurses accuse Hardcastle of neglecting his patients. This time Hardcastle is found guilty, and he is forced to resign from his post.


* Excuse the lazy journalese, but they know no better.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Edvard Munch at The British Museum, 2019 - review

The Scream, 1895

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst review – 'ripples of trauma hit you like a bomb'
British Museum, London
From his sunsets and deathbeds to the world-warping Scream, the Norwegian created apocalyptic masterpieces that are brutal, refined – and addictive

Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
9 Apr 2019

The man who created The Scream introduces himself with morbid panache at the start of the British Museum’s inkily beautiful journey into his imagination. He looks normal enough, calm and sombre, except that he’s got a skeleton arm. “Edvard Munch 1895”, reads the inscription above him. He presents himself in this bony self-portrait as a specimen of fin-de-siècle decay, a morbid example of the modern condition. Munch was 32 when he created this. In his head he clearly thought he was finished. In fact he would live until 1944, but this exhibition concentrates on his apocalyptic masterpieces of symbolist gloom from the 1890s and 1900s.

The Sick Child, 1907

Munch had good reason to feel cursed. Growing up in 19th-century Norway he was surrounded by illness and death. The most upsetting images here are not symbolist at all but distressingly matter-of-fact. Munch’s painting The Sick Child is shown beside its equally harrowing print version. They both mourn his sister Johanne Sophie, who died when he was a teenager. Nearby is another cry of anguish, Dead Mother and Child. The child’s face is a doll-like mask of terror. Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old.

Perhaps his most devastating portrayal of loss is his ensemble scene Death in the Sick Room. In a room that looks like a stage set, a company of black-clad people slowly move in balletic sympathy, as they coalesce in silent grief. A girl is dying. She’s got out of bed to sit in her chair one last time. It is the final moment and everyone knows it.
Set design for Ibsen's Ghosts

Again, this is not morbid fantasy but closely based on Munch’s own experiences. The exhibition shows this everyday tragedy beside Munch’s sketches for set designs for plays by the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, as well as his immensely characterful portrait of Ibsen sitting in a cafe, his face a map of human experience and insight as roughly sketched figures pass by on the street. Ibsen shook stages across 19th-century Europe with the naturalism of plays such as A Doll’s House and Ghosts. The intensity of Munch’s admiration for him comes as a fascinating surprise. It shows that Munch too thought of himself as some kind of realist.
Vampire II, 1896

Realism may not be what comes to mind when you look at Vampire II. A man lowers his head so his lover can sink her teeth into the back of his neck. She embraces him as she sucks his blood. Her red hair, tangled like gore-soaked seaweed, falls over his head. Munch designed this image in 1895, two years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published. Yet this is not a gothic image. It’s presented with the stark intensity of confession. The power of Munch’s art lies in the unparalleled way it pierces exterior appearances to reveal the reality of the mind.

The vampire drinking deep is just one of his images of sexual union as ecstasy and agony. In Attraction I, two young people gaze at each other with hollow eyes. In front of them is a black shore by an empty sea. On another of his eerie shores, a young woman looks from the pink sands at a lemon sunset on a pale sea. It is not always winter in Munch’s art. The spectral light of a Norwegian summer evening fills him with as much unease as the blackest night. Beside the young woman in her white dress sits a figure wrapped in a jet black robe with a lifeless face. Death is at your side even at midsummer.
Image result for munch attraction I
Attraction I, 1896

Munch’s art is addictive. It is at once brutal and refined. This exhibition concentrates on his works on paper, revealing their astonishing technical qualities, even showing some of his original plates and lithographic stones. Many prints here were made using multiple methods, and reworked at different moments. They are marvels of technique that glow with sickly gorgeous colours. His erotic Madonna is a swirling dream of blue and black surrounded by a rich red border. The woman’s body is pinkish paper left bare, her breasts delicately delineated in hints of ink.

Yet the real reason this exhibition of Munch’s prints works so well is that it captures the myth-making essence of his art. In the 1890s Munch was not just sketching passing perceptions but dredging up symbols of psychic states. Other examples of late-19th-century “symbolist” art are shown for comparison, by the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. Munch’s symbols are the starkest and most universal. Almost all the prints here also exist as paintings, yet the prints are in no way second best. They go to the heart of his enterprise. If he were to create a new symbolic language of feeling, his images needed to be reproducible. The sensual delight of Munch’s colours – including his sublime blacks – is ultimately secondary to content. In paint or print, his art lodges in your mind. Lonely people on the shore, a zombie-like city crowd in top hats and bonnets, the staring face of a young man possessed by jealousy – this exhibition is full of images you will never forget.
Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen, 1905 

And then finally we come to the fjordm where the whole of nature is transfigured by a great scream. I was suspicious of the hype for The Scream visiting London in this show. It’s on huge posters for the exhibition and has been in the media for months. It seemed a bit rich to big up this 1895 lithographic print of Munch’s masterpiece as if it was just as rare as the great 1893 painting in the National Museum, Oslo – or the other painted version in the Munch Museum. Art thieves know better (although after creating so much excitement around its lithograph, I hope the British Museum has good security). But scepticism changed to awe when I turned a corner and saw that ghost-like face, mouth wide open, hands over both ears.

The Scream hits you like a bomb in black and white. The sky is a wobble of warped wood grain. Folds of black map the shore like ripples of trauma, crystallising in a lonely church tower. It’s like looking at a heart monitor. The pulsations echo and amplify through space and you feel the same claustrophobic oppression that is tormenting Munch’s universal figure of the modern soul.

It is a work of art that abolishes the distance between us. Even as he portrays despair and loneliness and death, Munch does so in a way that celebrates our ability to communicate with each other. He leaves you harrowed yet inspired. This is an exhibition that shows why we need art. How else can we hear each other scream?

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is at the British Museum, London, from 11 April to 21 July.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/apr/09/scream-edvard-munch-love-and-angst-review-british-museum


https://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/munch.aspx


Friday, 12 April 2019

Wednesday night's set lists at The Habit, York


Ron Elderly: -
I'll See You In My Dreams
Dead Flowers


Da Elderly: -
They're All In It Together
I Saw The Light


The Elderly Brothers: -
When Will I Be Loved
All I Have To Do Is Dream
The Sound Of Silence
The Price Of Love
I Saw Her Standing There


On a very cold night in York, The Habit was virtually empty at about 8:30, but very soon people started to arrive, both players and punters. Within the hour the place was full and remained so for most of the night. Players continued to arrive and we went right through to close without having to recall anyone. Regular Debbie turned up with her recently formed trio Debris and surprised us with a sprightly Teach Your Children (photo above). For my solo set I dug out a song from 2011, dedicated to a former Prime Minister and previously posted on this very blog (31 Aug 2011). Our late and much missed FB Terry commented at the time "Bliddy Bolshie!" My second song was Todd Rundgren's 1972 minor hit (reached No.36 on the UK charts). The after-show jam was well received with folks joining in right through to close.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Van Gogh at Tate Britain 2019 - review

Self-portrait, 1889

Van Gogh and Britain review – on the town with Vincent
Tate Britain, London
The artist’s heady London years are the backdrop to a show that struggles to locate a British influence on this singularly self-propelled genius

Laura Cumming
The Observer
31 March 2019

Van Gogh loved Dickens. He wore a top hat on his daily walk to work from Brixton to Covent Garden. He rowed on the Thames, studied Turner and Constable in the National Gallery, even took the new underground railways. That he lived in London, on and off, between the spring of 1873 and the winter of 1876 still seems as surprising as Géricault painting the Epsom Derby and Canaletto working for nine years in Soho. But there is a crucial difference: Van Gogh was not yet a painter.

He was only 20 when a posting came up at the London branch of Goupil, the French art dealer for whom he worked in The Hague. A thumbnail sketch of Westminster Bridge on the company’s headed notepaper is one of only three drawings that survive from Van Gogh’s time in England. Fired from Goupil, and from his Brixton boarding house, where he fell in love with the landlady’s daughter (or possibly the widow herself, it is sometimes said), he briefly taught at a school in Ramsgate, before a stint as a Methodist lay preacher in Richmond. Not until the summer of 1880, when Van Gogh was 27, did he decide to become an artist.

But wasn’t Vincent born, and not made – his incomparable genius entirely sui generis? The standard piety is that art always comes from art, that no painter just appears out of nowhere. That is certainly the line the curators toe in this show, as they surely must, for the central premise of Van Gogh in Britain is that he was thoroughly steeped in British art. Other shows have argued the case for French Impressionism, Japanese prints, the paintings of Rembrandt or Jean-Francois Millet with considerably more success, for the simple reason that these influences are plain to see. Britain is a much bigger problem.

Prisoners Exercising, 1890

There are more than 50 works by Van Gogh in this show, including a trio of magnificent self-portraits, the great Starry Night Over the Rhône from the Musée d’Orsay, the National Gallery’s Sunflowers, and several astonishing masterpieces coaxed out of private collections. It is vital to know they are there, glowing at distant intervals somewhere in the glum labyrinth of prints, documents and subfusc mediocrities, otherwise you might become discouraged.
Vincent van Gogh Augustine Rouline (La berceuse) 1889 Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Augustine Rouline (La berceuse) 1889

It is true that the show also contains John Everett Millais’s powerfully dreich Chill October, which Van Gogh loved, and may have remembered when painting the dying light in his own Autumn Landscape at Dusk a whole decade later. And here is a Whistler Nocturne, though it is a considerable stretch to suggest that it had any effect whatsoever on Starry Night, with its golden emblems of hope ablaze in the midnight skies over the Rhône. Van Gogh’s supreme originality is all there in those stars and whorls and flakes of brilliant light. And Whistler was, in any case, American.


That Van Gogh learned from Gustave Doré (French) is not in doubt. Doré’s deathless etchings show London as a gaslit netherworld of poverty, smog and casual injustice, workers jammed in claustrophobic back-to-backs, addicts in opium dens, deprivation in doss houses. Van Gogh bought a complete set and even copied one print of prisoners forced to walk a cramped circle round and round Newgate yard. But his version is a painting, astoundingly bright, as if heaven were shining down upon these poor, benighted figures. It is the strangest paradox, a beautiful painting of the bleakest subject: a redemptive vision of hell.

Prisoners Exercising comes from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It is described by the curators as Van Gogh’s “only painting of London”, a curious claim, since he never saw the scene and made the work in Arles towards the end of his life. They are on firmer ground with those dark and knotted drawings of peasants from his early days back home in his father’s gloomy house, which do seem visually connected to the many English prints he saw in London in The Graphic magazine.
Vincent van Gogh Woman Sitting on a Basket with Head in Hands 1883 Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo, The Netherlands)
Woman Sitting on a Basket with Head in Hands, 1883

And you can just about believe the argument that Van Gogh’s portrait of his empty chair, stalwart yet humble, may have been inspired by Luke Fildes’s 1870 engraving of Dickens’s vacant study after the writer’s death. But that doesn’t begin to explain the marvellous expressiveness of Van Gogh’s portrait of his lonely possession, or the protectiveness millions of viewers feel towards that chair.

Van Gogh’s writings show admiration for lesser artists all through his life; his humility is deeply affecting. But it is no excuse for displaying so many of their works. And then the show goes the other way, with slews of British paintings influenced by Van Gogh, from Matthew Smith to Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore and Jacob Epstein. A whole gallery is devoted to their dahlias, chrysanthemums and lilies; any old flower, so long as it’s yellow and looks like a feeble tribute to The Sunflowers.
Vincent van Gogh Shoes 1886 Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Shoes, 1886

A Scotsman named Alexander Reid bought a painting directly from Van Gogh in 1887 – or at least he paid for the fruit depicted. A basket of apples surges like a life raft on an ocean of brushstrokes, flowing in waves and squalls up the canvas. Speed through the flower gallery – which feels like a form of crowd control, designed to deal with recurrent bottlenecks – and you will also encounter a spectacular yew tree, standing silver against a flaring yellow sky. And then a Wheatfield from the high summer of 1888, where the dabs and curlicues flow in wildly different directions and the hum of heat and light is so dynamic the picture is practically bursting.
Vincent van Gogh Horse Chestnut Tree in Blossom 1887 The Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Horse Chestnut Tree in Blossom, 1887

The sheer joy of it all is what strikes every time: every brushload laid upon the surface an act of exultation, every colour a kind of gratitude. Shivering harvest fields, delicate branches spreading like Hiroshige’s cherry blossoms, the trees outside the hospital at Saint-Rémy rippling to the cobalt skies like the flames of a summer fire, the asylum itself a stately golden palace. Even in a late self-portrait from the last summer of his life, when Van Gogh had been ill and was staying there, the painting is all exhilaration. The face is almost entirely green – “the green of a summer sky”, he called it – and the hair blazes up gold as a wind-flurried wheat field. You cannot look at it without being intensely aware of every stroke, the way the hand held the brush, pressing its freight of brilliant colour into the springy surface of the canvas over and again, this way and that – Van Gogh’s singular idiom, his spirit, at work.
Vincent van Gogh Pollarded Willows 1888 Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo, The Netherlands)
Pollarded Willows, 1888

It is no overstatement to speak of the aura of his paintings. And no disrespect to Whistler, Doré or any of the British artists in this show, to say that their contribution to Van Gogh’s brief but soaring flight is quite obviously negligible. It is still amazing to think how high and far Van Gogh flew, before killing himself at the age of 37. From the early chalk drawings in this show, tentative and ungainly, to the whirling skies and crackling trees and radiant stars, to the dizzying morphology of brush-marks that channel the sensational flow of his mind, eye and passion, it is barely a single, hurtling decade.

• Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain, London, until 11 August

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/31/van-gogh-and-britain-tate-britain-review

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ey-exhibition-van-gogh-and-britain

Friday, 5 April 2019

Dead Poets Society #91 Emily Dickinson: A Man may make a Remark

Related image

A Man may make a Remark by Emily Dickinson

A Man may make a Remark - 
In itself - a quiet thing 
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark 
In dormant nature - lain - 

 Let us divide - with skill - 
Let us discourse - with care - 
Powder exists in Charcoal - 
Before it exists in Fire -


Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Marvin Gaye: You're the Man

Marvin Gaye: You're the Man review – 'lost album' sits at crossroads of soul
Remixed and repackaged collection finds a troubled artist caught between the socially conscious What’s Going On and the Motown machine

Alexis Petridis
The Guardian
28 March 2019

In early 1972, Marvin Gaye should have been on top of the world. The previous year, he had wrested control of his career from Motown’s draconian hit-making system, winning a bitter battle to get What’s Going On released as a single: the song Motown boss Berry Gordy claimed was “the worst piece of crap I ever heard” spent five weeks at No 1 in the US R&B chart. The album of the same name had sold a million copies, been nominated for two Grammys and redefined perceptions of Motown both externally and internally. A label previously dominated by singles had released a critically acclaimed, wildly successful concept album. An emboldened Stevie Wonder was now making it clear that he too was sick of the label’s insistence on total control. In the wake of What’s Going On, Gaye had been named trendsetter of the year by Billboard magazine, and re-signed with Motown in what was, at the time, the most lucrative deal ever struck by a black artist.

But, as was invariably the case in Gaye’s complex and troubled life, all was not as it seemed. Just as the 1968 success of I Heard It Through the Grapevine had left him oddly resentful and insecure – he hadn’t written the song, so he “felt like a puppet” – and he found the acclaim afforded What’s Going On “heavy”. As he told biographer David Ritz: “When you’re at the top there’s nowhere to go but down.” And his battle with Motown wasn’t over. When Gordy heard Gaye’s next single, You’re the Man – a bleak, distrustful assessment of the 1972 US presidential campaign, intended as the title track of a forthcoming album but lacking the kind of luscious melodies that had flowed through What’s Going On – he either panicked or coolly enacted revenge for Gaye’s earlier revolt: Motown pulled promotion and pressured radio stations to drop it from their playlists, ensuring it flopped.

This 17-track collection named after that song tries to make sense of what happened next. Grandly billed as a great lost album, it’s really a compilation of cancelled singles and studio outtakes, some of them polished up for release by Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi. They capture the sound of an artist who clearly doesn’t know what to do. At some sessions, Gaye forged ahead with the idea of another album in the socially conscious vein of What’s Going On. He reworked You’re the Man in the hazy, shimmering style of that album, and recorded Woman of the World – an ostensibly breezy ode to feminism that on closer inspection seems to be grousing that women’s lib is interfering with the more important business of Marvin Gaye getting his leg over. The fantastic The World Is Rated X similarly suggests that his attitude had become more cynical than that of the saintly figure pleading we Save the Children a year previously.

At other sessions, however, Gaye behaved as though he thought Gordy might have had a point, meekly returning to Motown business as usual. He taped a series of songs with Willie Hutch, subsequently best known for his blaxploitation soundtracks to The Mack and Foxy Brown, but then a Motown staff writer. To say what they recorded is standard-issue lightweight early 70s Motown pop would be underselling it slightly – I’m Gonna Give You Respect is a fabulous, effervescent song, and Gaye gives it his all – but it’s a world away from Inner City Blues or What’s Happening Brother. But another song by staffers, Gloria Jones and Pamela Sawyer’s Piece of Clay, is inspired, its gospel sound spattered with a howling psychedelic guitar: soul’s past tied together with its present.

Elsewhere, You’re the Man unearths a cache of great unreleased ballads from 1969, of which Symphony is both the best song and a reminder of the perils of letting a hot producer loose on old material. Apparently working on the demented principle that Gaye’s work would be improved if it sounded as if it was recorded last week, Salaam Remi has faffed with the drums to give them a contemporary feel. If his approach is marginally more subtle than the late-80s practice of just whacking a drum machine on top of a vintage track, it’s clearly going to date in a way the original recording – released in 2009 on the deluxe edition of Gaye’s 1973 album Let’s Get It On – has not.

Gaye found his route out of confusion by unlikely means, recording a Christmas single that Motown declined to release. Understandably so: I Want to Come Home for Christmas was a desolate slab of misery written from the perspective of a prisoner of war, while Christmas in the City was a funereal-paced synthesiser instrumental. But the latter prefigured Gaye’s hit soundtrack to Trouble Man, just as Woman of the World’s suggestion that politics mattered less to Gaye than sex prefigured Let’s Get It On. The music he abandoned in order to release those albums is a fascinating jumble of ideas, some of them fantastic. Too confused to be a great lost album, or indeed a coherent collection, as a snapshot of both its creator and soul music in turmoil, it’s perfect.

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/mar/28/marvin-gaye-youre-the-man-review-soul-at-the-crossroads?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other