Not Enough Heart in Maxwell's Soul
By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Back in the mid-'90s, Maxwell was on the leading edge of the retro-soul movement that also birthed Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. He was like Prince mixed with Marvin Gaye mixed with a lot of lesser artists who sounded like Prince and Marvin Gaye. He was the thinking woman's lover man, author of an amazing debut, 1996's "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," and two lesser, stranger follow-ups. And then he disappeared.
"BLACKsummers'night," Maxwell's first disc since 2001, is the first of an intended series of three studio albums in three years, each with a nominally different sound. Meant to be the most straightforward soul disc of the trilogy, it's a bluesy, dark-minded album with a lived-in feel.
Maxwell was always more of an eccentric than he seemed (his sophomore disc, 1998's "Embrya," lingered so long at the intersection of sex and spiritualism it might as well have been titled "Let's Get Metaphysical"). Neo-soul was less a revolution than a spectacular retreat, a return to the warmth and the stateliness of classic R&B with a few contemporary flourishes. Maxwell did the old thing well, at a time when nobody else was doing it at all. These days, everyone's doing it. He's tilling much the same soil as Alicia Keys and John Legend, and "BLACKsummers'night" has the peculiar misfortune of being a respectable, often charming retro-soul record at a time when respectable, often charming retro-soul records are not uncommon. It bears little trace of even the modest weirdness for which Maxwell (who famously recorded a song titled "I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You [Pt. Me & You]") used to be known. It's sophisticated and impeccable, but its mildness might be terminal. It's . . . nice.
In the service of these solid, often indistinguishable tracks, Maxwell deploys all the tools in an old-school soul singer's arsenal: horns, hand claps, stirring, gospel-y backing vocals, his much-missed keening falsetto. Sometimes he employs all at once, as on the fine and leisurely first single, "Pretty Wings." The rest fall into three categories: love songs, often regretful (such as "Playing Possum," a flamenco- and folk-inspired guitar ballad); let's-go-to-bed songs (the steamy, familiar "Stop the World"); the-world-is-going-to-hell songs ("Help Somebody," with its atypically lively, golden-age-of-soul feel).
Maxwell is not what anyone would consider a born lyricist, and these tracks are notable more for their slippery grooves than for anything they might actually say about Maxwell. Only the piano ballad "Love You" hints at something deeper. Its revealing first verse is the closest he ever gets to mentioning his extended absence ("You come out from nowhere / Disappear and reappear / Houdini would be very proud / I can speculate your fears / Wonder on your tears / But I just wanna hear the sound").
"BLACKsummers'night" is otherwise cerebral but impersonal, an album that never quite breaks free of its self-imposed restraints, that never swings when it can glide.