Why the singer’s final studio album is so much more than “Sexual Healing”
In 1982, Marvin Gaye found himself in a strange place.
His previous two records – Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime – had been artistically compelling but hadn’t had the commercial success he’d achieved in the 1970s. Gaye was incensed by the release of the former, which Motown had both rushed and tinkered with, and he moved on from the label after a decades-long relationship. His drug addiction had become an increasing problem, he had just gone through his second divorce, and he fled the country to escape his tax debt.
The situation could have been disastrous – and Gaye’s mental health wouldn’t hold out for much longer – but he managed to put together one final album. That record, Midnight Love, gave him one massive hit and suggested that he was on a new cultural ascendancy, a bittersweet legacy given the way the rest of his life would play out.
Everything turned around quickly, if only temporarily. Gaye connected with a promoter and found a place to stay in Osten, Belgium (don’t worry – he didn’t know where it was either). He sobered up, and CBS Records bought out his contract from Motown. With a new label and a new home, he had a new start. He received some help from touring bandmates Odell Brown and Gordon Banks and (to a disputed degree) journalist David Ritz, but Gaye largely wrote and recorded the album himself. Newly focused and ostensibly independent, Gaye turned his vision to creating a more outward focused album in contrast to the meditations on his own divorce and introspection on his previous releases. In doing so, he hit on a recurring theme in Midnight Love that always sells: sex.
VIDEO: Marvin Gaye “Sexual Healing”
A single song towers over the album, with good reason. “Sexual Healing” gave Gaye his first successful single in five years, and his first to chart at all in a while. The song’s bluntness – when the singer gets turned on, he’d like sexual release – proves to be its strength (subtlety doesn’t always make for great pop). Through a mix of delicate funk, whispered vocals and his impeccable vocal delivery, Gaye manages to find a sound that captures a deep yearning within its explicit eroticism. The song’s precise arrangement and attention to detail all serve the larger mood. With its mix of timeless (people will always be desirous) and timely (the 808 and the synths are peak 1982), the song remains a classic and the clear highpoint of the album.
It would be a mistake to boil Midnight Love down to just a single song. The joy (and the tragedy) of the album lies partly in the fact that Gaye sounds rejuvenated throughout. From the opening drum and synth of “Midnight Lady,” it’s clear that Gaye has found a creative approach to his post-disco era. His willingness to get nasty comes out in his draw to “a super freak” or “you freaky thing.” While he might be pointed purely toward partying, he’s carefully crafting every element of the song. “Rockin’ After Midnight” hasn’t maintained mainstream attention, but is every bit as catchy as anything on the album and continues the album’s mood. The cut carries no innuendo because there’s no difference between the connotation and denotation of “rocking” throughout the track; it’s not sex disguised as rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no need for cover or being “sensitive people” by this point. Gaye isn’t seductive on the album (he’d covered that on earlier releases) but strictly sexual, and he makes his points clear.
“Turn on Some Music” twists the idea a little bit, using its slower jam to draw connections between music and love (or at least lust). Gaye has some serious plans, suggesting to his partner that they “put three albums on,” but he uses the length of the night to suggest the enduring nature of his love. “’Til Tomorrow,” the album’s only proper ballad, plans for an entire night, but doesn’t assume it. Here Gaye needs to seduce his partner, even turning to French for some extra class.
The album more or less avoids being one note with a few twists. “Third World Girl,” a little oddly serves as a tribute to Bob Marley in its verse. Reggae was coming to influence more of Gaye’s style, and he appreciated Marley in particular. The bridge does turn it into another love song, almost as if Gaye needed to stick to songs to play in low light at midnight (this one probably doesn’t work so well in that setting). “Joy,” the album’s funkiest track gets away from the strictly sexual to dwell more on romantic happiness.
“My Love Is Waiting” ends the disc on a strange but uplifting note. Gaye thanks his collaborators and then, “most of all,” Jesus. His spirituality might be largely hidden on this record, but he hasn’t abandoned it; it was merely time for a party record. On “My Love,” he offers a more general embrace, addressed specifically to a partner with whom he is “in and out of love” while hoping that “we’re learning to fall in love anew.” It might be a love song, but Gaye sings it as if he’s finding everything a new, including a more general joy and optimism.
That singing, truly, sells the album. The album might not have a ton of emotional range, but Gaye’s vocals (and his own harmonies) are on full display. Few artists have been as perfectly expressive as him, and as he found new musical ideas through funk, reggae and more, he was just taking off on a new era. Midnight Love isn’t a perfect album, but it’s a strong one as immediately valuable as it is suggestive of a future that never happened.
Listening to “My Love Is Waiting” remains a challenge. Gaye sounds some hopeful as he returns to…to love, to normalcy, to hope. Shortly after recording this album, he returned to the U.S., started using drugs (most notably cocaine) again, and suffered from serious depression and suicidal ideation. His troubled relationship with his father would end in 1984 with Gaye, Sr. killing Gaye with a gun that the son had bought his father.
In the context of Gaye’s death, Midnight Love feels like a final burst before everything gave way. Removed from the context, it remains a marvel of libido, yes, but also careful and dynamic artistry from a pop legend.
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