Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On opens with two lovely tracks. What’s Going On and What’s Happening Brother are snapshots of American political problems at the time, and Gaye’s relaxed style allows him to paint a painful picture gently. This soothing voice continues throughout the album, and the accompanying instrumentation manages to remain laid back without becoming boring.
Another continuous theme of the record is Gaye’s dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Having mourned (and quite rightly) the loss of life in the Vietnam war and the struggles faced by returning veterans in the first two songs, Gaye goes on to bemoan drug addiction, violent policing, poverty, unemployment, overpopulation, the environment and the price of cheese. While I certainly agree that these things are bad (have you tried to buy a decent cheese sandwich recently?) I can’t help but become a little irritated by all this lamenting.
I think my annoyance is partly because Gaye’s reaction to his many woes is to assert over and over again that we should all just ‘love each other’, as if by sheer repetition he will manage to solve the complex sociopolitical problems that have arisen over centuries. Although he touches on some very important issues, that are (as Lisa Stanfield says) just as pertinent now as when this album was written, a lot of the lyrics on this album are basically meaningless. Take the insipid command on Save The Children to “live your life” as an example.
After lambasting the lyrics, I must admit that for an impotent cry of despair this album is surprisingly upbeat. The hopeless despondence of this record is probably a reflection of Gaye’s state of mind at the time, having just lost his singing partner Tammi Terrell, which resulted in a deep depression and attempted career change. I probably shouldn’t expect a Soul singer to provide insightful solutions to global conflict etc. anyway.