If there are better songs in the discography of Al Green I’m unaware of them. That’s not because I think The Absolute Best, a 2-disc compilation ranging the entirety of Green’s stay with Willie Mitchell at Hi Records contains all that is the pinnacle of the man’s career. It’s really (and sadly) because it’s the only music I have from Al Green and everything I’ve heard elsewhere can be found on this compilation.
There may be better songs, but “Strong As Death (Sweet As Love)” really encompasses everything I love about Al Green: the fragile falsetto, a voice with so much power being held back, soul as potential rather than kinetic energy. The incredible way the drums sound: one of the good things about the CD set are the liner notes featuring interviews with all the major players – Mitchell goes into a little detail as to how he got that fantastic drum sound with the help of drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson, jr.
If we’re taking physical media and what it says about us, I love liner notes. One of my favorite things is to get an album with some serious writing in it, put the thing on and just read as I listen. If there’s a holdover to that now with my limited physical buying (something I’m slowly increasing) it’s going front to back through my Decibel subscription each month and putting on whatever band I’m reading out, even if it’s just for one song. It’s something I wish more metal albums would do, even if it’s just a quick word or two about the recording.
But jumping back to The Absolute Best for a moment, even Robert Christgau has great things to say about the compilation compared to some of Green’s other “hits” packages (although he does note right up front you should just buy the records). And it’s hard to fault him – jumping from “Love and Happiness” to “Let’s Stay Together” to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and seeing how those hold up to lesser known tracks like the driving “I’m a Ram” and “Love Ritual” shows that during his heyday the man and the band were flawless in song craft.
When I’m looking for 70s soul and R&B I normally reach through habit to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and played with a little more funk in their souls. But coming back to Al Green and The Absolute Best I’m really struck by the tracks I’m not as familiar with – as I write this “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” is playing and the mix of horns and guitar against the backbeat is about as classic as you can get – maybe it’s time to really dive into an actual album or two, get into the sequencing of the thing and see what else Green has to offer.
Maybe I’ll even get some liner notes…