In Our Lifetime?
1981; r: 2007
ontext is essential in looking at Marvin Gaye’s penultimate statement, In Our Lifetime—it goes some way towards explaining the flaws that permeate it, and exculpating (to an extent) this great hero of ‘70s soul. Marvin Gaye’s prime period began ten years into his career. Before that moment, he was simply a very good gentlemanly lounge crooner for a Motown more than happy to continue to promote family values. Once he took creative control of his career, however, his talent blossomed. Whilst the likes of Isaac Hayes and Al Green continued with love ballads, What’s Going On dealt with Vietnam, drugs, poverty, and the environment. Released in 1971, What’s Going On established Gaye so highly in the developing soul canon that almost everything he released subsequently was eulogized and given the benefit of any lingering doubts.
In Our Lifetime doesn’t deserve that, to be frank, and it doesn’t really deserve a “25th Anniversary” special extended reissue either—this is no Sgt. Pepper-scale birthday. After What’s Going On, Gaye had reinvented himself as Love Machine with the wonderful Let’s Get It On (1973), and I Want You (1976), and then as Bitter Divorcee with Here, My Dear in 1978. I would gladly let the fan in me gloss over the dregs of those latter two to revel in the highlights, but that’s a concession I can’t bring myself to make with In Our Lifetime, where the better parts are only found after 25 minutes of comparative dross.
Motown had been expecting another love-machine album and had already printed 450,000 sleeves for Love Man before Gaye decided to trash the album and piped up with his plan to return to social commentary. Between LA, Hawaii, and London, Gaye recorded what was now In Our Lifetime? for two years whilst riding a heavy coke habit that brought out the worst of his emotional instabilities. After one London session he disappeared to Europe, without telling anyone where he was or what his plans were. Motown pounced, finally tired of continuing delays and obstinance, to get whatever was recorded hastily mixed and released. Gaye was furious, and later told Melody Maker, “I disavow this publicly as being my work.”
The lack of communication between both sides is most aptly demonstrated by the loss of the question mark from the title—Gaye intended the album to ask whether apocalyptic scenarios were imminent. It’s hard to tell from the results, though: of the eight songs included in the final release, only two seem to have a vaguely moral message (the others being about love, sex, and partying). But now, with 20 bonus tracks in this new edition, we can now wade through all the alternate takes and tracks, put on our A&R hat, and compile our own version of In Our Lifetime? So, what should have been dropped from the initial release?
Perhaps the better question is “what should have been kept?” Opening track “Praise” has a shambling, near-calypso groove which Gaye unkindly credits to Stevie Wonder (“Stevie, we really dig you, hope you don’t mind this lift from you”), and tiresomely repeated mantras of “baby, life is a party, let your love come shining through.” It’s followed by preachy, sax-driven jam “Life Is for Learning,” about “songs from wisdom and songs from Satan,” where Gaye weakly croaks “songs from lust” with such little feeling it sounds like he’s been faking it for years. “Love Party” has the kind of cheesy beat that gave disco a bad name, and alternates between “we need lovin’, love explosion, ooh darlin!” lyrics and more nonsensical bible-talk. Then we have a great bass-line in the opening verse of “Funk Me,” but also a titular hook suggesting Gaye is scraping right through a barrel-bottom somewhere. As unsubtle as that hook is, the real low point is an unforgivably terrible lyric: “funky music lights my fire, shakes my body sexify.”
Trash Side One, then. Side Two does better, though it starts with the babbling “Far Cry.” Gaye was especially unhappy with this version, as it featured him singing a rough guide track, and indeed it’s mostly indecipherable and obviously unfinished. Finally we hit some winners—“Love Me Now Or Love Me Later” is a keeper despite its confusing biblical narrative, because the groove and arrangement are vintage Marv. That segues straight into a duo fit for Here, My Dear—the swaggering “Heavy Love Affair,” and the final title track which was his funkiest cut since “Space Reincarnation.”
Of the 20 bonus tracks, 14 are alternative studio takes, and six are other songs that were floating about at the time. The former are academic additions—if one or two are marginally more interesting, that’s not saying a lot. There are four versions of “Ego Tripping Out,” which was included on some pressings of the original album and released as an accompanying single—it’s a decent re-tread of the groovy disco that Gaye was releasing in the late ‘70s. Of the others, little would trouble any Best Of compilers, though “I Offer You Nothing But My Love” and the instrumental “Nuclear Juice” would arguably improve In Our Lifetime?
But that’s not nearly enough. In Our Lifetime? is the sound of a man with a huge reputation going over old ground in a desperate search for new ideas—some work, but more don’t, and we shouldn’t euphemize on account of his previous successes. At this point his personal life was out of control, as the foreboding message of the cover indicates. It wasn’t, however, the storm clouds hanging over the world that Marvin should have been so worried about as much as the storm clouds over his career.
Reviewed by: Ally Brown
Reviewed on: 2007-07-16