Maxwell - blackSUMMERS'night (2016)

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Maxwell - blackSUMMERS'night

Within the mini-booklet accompanying Maxwell's latest CD, blackSUMMERS'nightthere's an image of the performer suited and booted, yet slightly out of focus and hovering above ground. Some fans will see it as simple eye candy, but for those who've listened to the set, what's seen on the back cover symbolizes what the contents are within. Is that a positive or a negative? Well, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the sparseness and free-ranging vibes of blackSUMMERS'night' could enchant the listener and beckon them into a 'fantastic voyage' or it could feel like a disjointed mish-mash of experimental grooves and emotions, especially when compared to 2009's first edition of Maxwell's conceived trilogy, BLACKsummers'night. 

Maxwell - blackSUMMERS'night

Within the mini-booklet accompanying Maxwell's latest CD, blackSUMMERS'nightthere's an image of the performer suited and booted, yet slightly out of focus and hovering above ground. Some fans will see it as simple eye candy, but for those who've listened to the set, what's seen on the back cover symbolizes what the contents are within. Is that a positive or a negative? Well, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the sparseness and free-ranging vibes of blackSUMMERS'night' could enchant the listener and beckon them into a 'fantastic voyage' or it could feel like a disjointed mish-mash of experimental grooves and emotions, especially when compared to 2009's first edition of Maxwell's conceived trilogy, BLACKsummers'night. 

As one of the few remaining kings of Neo-Soul, Maxwell has the luxury of spacing his projects and living/collecting inspiration in-between. The 2009 predecessor was built on the foundation of a broken heart, or at least the concept of disillusion or growing apart. This year's offering feels like the exact opposite, weariness of relationships altogether or coming to terms with the fairy tale being out of reach and settling for what exists. In other words, if fans are looking for an abundance of steamy, toe-curling take-you-down anthems or odes to lust and togetherness, they're out of luck. But if they want to join Maxwell and his established collaborators, Hod David and Stuart Matthewman on this minimalist, mercurial ride, there are definitely rewards to be found. 

The second half of blackSUMMERS'night has the most conventional feel, with  lyrics that turn the expected urban grooves into unexpected emotions and outcomes: "Hostage" feels gentle, but paints the musician as a willing prisoner to his love's whims ("If the keys were left, I would never go yeah/I'd stay within the confines of your hold. I'm free inside the cage of your heart in gold/prison of you lov makes me so....."). "Gods" posits Maxwell as the sinner and his lover as above rules and reproach, and "Finger's Crossed," featuring a smattering of horns, a marcher's tempo and the stylings of Robert Glasper, hopes against hope that he can win the love, even as its nature may ebb and flow with everyday struggles and the impressions of others outside their union: "They can tell you anything to change your mind, there's no mystery and you're not blind/Fingers crossed you'll make the choice, to make you mine, make you mine." 

Some songs are more nebulous, but they still get the job done: "1990x" feels live, and describes the transcendent out-of-body moments that occur while making love, and "Lost," for all its' jazzy fusion edges and Portishead influence, describes the voyeuristic longing of an ex as he watches his love move further and further back in the rearview mirror: "And I know you'e happy, and your children are growing up/And ya husband is loving ya, I don't know if I can go on/Because I've been so lost...."  

However, the opening few joints of the set are so raw-sounding that some fans may not even get to the 'chewy middle' where the gems are. "III" is trippy and 80s-esque, for example, and "All The Ways Love Can Feel" opens with his falsetto, but it's so grainy that the sexiness he's going for feels forced (the hypnotic "Lake By the Ocean" also uses it, but to a better end than the former). Then there's an odd 23-second blip of instrumentation at the end of it all....um, really?

Maybe Maxwell wanted to go the conceptual route, then changed his mind, or perhaps things evolved organically in the other direction and he just decided to go along for the ride. Either way, blackSUMMER'snight leaves his neo-soul roots further away than most will anticipate, and what's taken its place, like that hovering photo on the back of the booklet, may seem freeing.....or too far-fetched to believe. Recommended.

By Melody Charles 

 
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