Al Green - Beware
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
You think you know me, but you don’t. I contain multitudes. That’s what Al Green’s “Beware” tells the trusting listener. Livin’ for You has never been as popular as Call Me or I’m Still in Love With You in the pre-Belle Album canon, although it’s home to sizable hits like the title track and “Let’s Get Married,” whose line “I’m tired of your bright ideas about losing me” augurs Green’s approach on “Beware.” Don’t think that this meticulous recordmaker didn’t know that bookending two variations on this theme would inject a welcome snark to an album of tepid tried-and-true’s and remarkably unremarkable covers.
At 8:12, “Beware” is one of Green’s longest tunes—an expansion of what was by 1973 a seasoned craftsman’s obsessions. If “Let’s Stay Together” and “Call Me” rendered Green as the star in his own billowy romantic fantasies, and “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)” was the PG-rated simulacrum of “Tired of Being Alone”’s hard-dicked impatience, “Beware” subsumes them in a groove whose predictability, borne of equal parts confidence and mercenary instincts, doesn’t mitigate Green’s determination to show how finely shaded the Love Man pose was if you were staring hard enough (imagine if Bryan Ferry had fused “If There Is Something” and “Just Another High”!). It’s the work of an artist with an uncanny grasp of how he stood in relation to his audience. Compared with sonic cousin “Your Love Is the Morning Sun,” the drawled hush in which Green sings “Beware” signifies a rapture as besotted with its own ability to provoke rapture as the earlier tune was at delineating the afterglow of one monstrous night of passion.
A chunk of “Beware” maintains a pace as unhurried as “…Morning Sun,” even with Leroy Hodges plucking a bass line as quietly propulsive as a finger thrust up a skirt. Over electric piano and Al Jackson’s as-ever metronomic drumming, Green sings:
The way people smile and sayI want to concentrate on the line, “It’s all okay.” Enunciating the two syllables, he assures us that the statement is an unambiguous admission of exhaustion—or is it? The ominous churn of keyboards and drums say otherwise; it’s not okay if one glance at the vinyl tells us there’s still six-plus minutes of all-okay. Then the truly odd: “So many people think life is fun / We’ve only just begun.” Sung in Green’s most fetching growl, you understand why pleasure—fleeting and limited to one’s capacity for re-invention—cannot be contingent on joy. You understand what led Green to affix a “Reverend” to his name after a bowl of grits scalded his back. “Beware” explores pleasure, not joy; this explains its crawl to a triumphant, thundering climax. To approach joy he had to crawl, as he would to Jesus a couple of years later, note by note, testing each instrument, spitting couplets and epithets with homiletic intensity when clarity failed him.
Using me in every way
It’s all okay
Tired of changin’
Life is upside down
No reason to cry loud
The rest of “Beware” isn’t so interesting: Green, at last figuring out where he’s got to take the track, leads the band through a more loping version of “Love & Happiness.” But a hint of the looser arrangements Green would pursue on The Belle Album appears at midpoint: an acoustic guitar, picked by Green himself (“Play my guitar,” he murmurs, with an infectious pride), weaving between the pistons of Jackson’s drums, coyly, nimbly. The last minute is perfection: Charlie Hodges plays an electric piano motif that’s right out Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Jackson hangs in there, and there’s Green, chuckling. “Every time he laughs mischievously at the passion elicited by his boyish come-on, he shares a joke about the pleasures of the tease,” Robert Christgau once wrote (remember Justin Timberlake’s own giggle in “Senorita”). This unassuming mélange of gospel intensity and post-jazz introspection is one of those hybrids for which Green got so little credit from an audience who wanted wedding standards—and from the artist himself, who would have himself kept recording these standards had not grits and a misunderstanding of the pleasure principle hardened him against a secular muse to whom he could have pledged a troth of a more beguiling stature.