Maxwell's Existentialist Hang Suite

Brooklyn's soul philosopher dials it back, but just a little

His homecoming begins with the gentle dings of a xylophone, sweetly cooed lyrics ("Time will bring the real end of our tr-ial"), and familiar, moaning vocals that shift into and out of an enunciated falsetto: "Pret-ty wings, oh, pret-ty wings." It closes with a flourish of cymbals. "Pretty Wings," the Maxwellian rewrite of fellow '90s soul sensation Donell Jones's searing ballad "Where I Wanna Be," was exactly what you'd expect from Brooklyn's own Maxwell, who'd taken seven years off from recording to "experience life," as he put it, and, in doing so, mine material. Expectedly mellow, his much-teased fourth album, BLACKsummers'night, is part one in the BlackSummers'Night trilogy, to be completed over three years with BlackSUMMERS'Night and BlackSummers'NIGHT. Oh, boy.

The title/concept, in true Maxwell fashion, is embellished, sure. You could picture an exasperated theater student explaining, "No, no, this one is BLACKsummers'night, not BlackSummers'NIGHT." But really, the material in this first installment is more digestible than usual. His poetic stylings, though still prominent, are a bit less intimidating, which makes for a tranquil nine-track disc with few highs or lows.

Excluding his signature sexy-soul fro (now sadly downscaled), Maxwell has a tendency to think too big. Postulating broad theories in five-minute songs, he's the opposite of, say, Ne-Yo, who specializes in very trivial relationship moments (not going to bed mad, sex in front of a mirror, etc.). No, Maxwell is more complex—not necessarily better, just more complex. This has been the protocol since his 1996 debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, (relatively) quickly followed by Embrya (1998) and Now (2001). Amid the cushy instrumental breaks and aphrodisiacal musings, the neo-soul sophisticate was at his best with love songs that were equally sultry and straightforward: "Let's Not Play the Game," "Lifetime," and his biggest hit, "Fortunate," whose "Wooooooo" opening simply melts.

The arrangements on BLACK—all performed by Maxwell and his 10-piece band, then filtered through the singer's production team, Musze—are lively and layered and plush, with horn stabs a frequent occurrence. "Bad Habits" starts subtly, then expands into a funky trumpet-driven session as he confesses to loving and leaving: "Assed out all over town/Drags you and keeps you down/Two times in a day around/Will you forgive me?"

The temperature remains cool throughout, with nothing rising higher than "Pretty Wings." "Love You," a modest piano groove, finds Maxwell pleading his feelings quite plainly: "And even after years/I need you when you don't/I'll remain more stubborn than I ever was before/I bear the witness, bear the witness for you, girl/All that is good, it's 'cause of you I'm in the world." Another potential single is the casually measured ballad "Fistful of Tears," addressed to an obstinate lover: "Fight of your life is not the cost/Time will reveal, yeah, all along/That you're the one who's losing." The acoustic-guitar-centered "Playing Possum" is mostly unadorned, though midway through comes a crying sax. Strictly instrumental, the techno closer "Phoenix Rise" unites a layer of cymbal clashes, drums, trumpet blares, sax, and so forth, a much more professional version of something you yourself would create in GarageBand (sigh).

The constant with Maxwell is that he tackles the topic of love with a philosopher's eye: "I'm eating crow, babe/I had to go and think that I could be more best/Left alone, then with you next, it develops nonetheless" (he offers on the Prince-esque "Cold"). It's easy to fancy the mood of his music over its poeticism, but with BLACK, he strikes a pleasant balance that's neither boring nor overwhelming. Title notwithstanding.

 
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