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23 July, 2009@2:39 am

After an eight-year absence Maxwell is back, and when you put on BLACKsummers’night the sounds coming out of your speakers are so soulful you can almost feel the toxins washing out of your system.  The album is filled with lush horn arrangements, plaintive vocal phrasings and an overall sound that feels completely assured and cohesive.  Did we realize what we were missing?

Maxwell has said in interviews that he needed some time to live a real life, to have relationships without being famous. BLACKsummers’night finds the 36-year-old neo-soul pioneer, these eight years later, sounding entirely comfortable in his own skin and like a real person.  It strikes you listening to it that this may be the first album in a while (from anyone seemingly) that isn’t one of these naval-gazing, perils of celebrity diatribes.  There are no “I’ve had so many ho’s on the road, but you’re the one for me, baby” tales on BLACKsummers’night.  Instead Maxwell is vulnerable and humble, questioning, while the music itself is confident.

The opener, “Badhabits,” starts out with some falsetto wallowing but morphs into a horn-blaring, foot-stomping jam.  “Baby, to tell the truth/when I’m sober I jonez for you/when it’s over I’m overdue/Girl it’s no one as bad as you,” Maxwell hits his stride in a very contained but thrilling display.  The vibe is not lost at all on “Cold,” as those horns come punching back in. “My summer’s gone frigid,” Maxwell laments.  It’s an outcry that lets you know this eight-year period where he went dark has left him with something to sing about.

“Prettywings” is the kind of heartfelt ballad Maxwell is known for, and it delivers the goods:

“I came wrong/you were right/Transformed your love into like/Baby believe me; I’m sorry I told you lies.”

Go ahead Maxwell, tell it like is, please.  He continues:

“I turned day into night/Sleep till I die a thousand times/I should’ve showed you/Better nights, better times, better days/I miss you more and more.”

It’s interesting to hear someone who is as much a world-renowned lady killer confess to letting his girl down, but he doesn’t seem to be in the business of excuse making, which is refreshing.  On “Loveyou” the album begins its ascension to an emotional high point–it’s an upbeat unabashed love confession and here the usually satin-voiced singer even lets a little gravel sneak into his crooning and it drives the point home.

BLACKsummers’night really requires two serious listens to have a full understanding of its power–once for the singing and lyrics and then again for the backing band.  Purely from a sonic standpoint, it’s one of the best R&B albums we’ve heard since D’Angelo’s Voodoo.  There are horn bursts and symbol crashes and guitar riffs and piano chords throughout that are nearly awe-inspiring.  You cannot help but be moved.

The aura peaks on “Fistfuloftears” and “Playingpossum” breaks out that Spanish acoustic guitar (you knew it was coming) and that mournful trumpet (how can you resist it) and Maxwell calling out, “Come back from the dead/You left my, my heart here/Say what you will and won’t forget/Express disappointment, speak your regrets, yeah/Or baby call out my name, I’ll be where you are.”

When he slips into the full-on angelic falsetto singing, “I’m begging you sugar, have some leniency,” you’re crouched over holding your stomach thinking, damn, why won’t she just come back?

The only negative of this album is that the answer never comes.  In fact, the rest of the album never materializes.  At only 37 minutes, there’s eight songs and one instrumental track.  And it’s over.  What?  Don’t leave us like that.  The instrumental would be fine as an interlude or at the end of a long album, but this simply ends right when we’re ready to take it to the next level.  Supposedly BLACKsummers’night is part of a three-album trilogy that’s going to be released over the next few years, but how many times have we heard that?  You’re usually lucky if you get two of the three and half the time the second one ends up being some throw away to get out of a record contract.

What seemed on its way to being a great album manages to leave you feeling somewhat unsatisfied–kind of like a love affair that starts out so promising, seems too good to be true, and then one day she suddenly stops calling with no explanation.  We can only hope Maxwell isn’t just leading us on.  - Stefan Schumacher

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