The soul singer, a 28-year-old New Yorker named Maxwell, is performing “This Woman’s Work,” a song by Kate Bush, the intensely chirpy English art-thrush from the ’80s; it appears on Now, his third album. He begins in wordless falsetto, aaahhs and oohhs and woooos plus a few other undifferentiated sliding syllables. “Pray God you can cope,” the soul singer soon drifts into English, beginning to give voice to a stark personal crisis. The song is all melodic schizophrenia, a lullaby that turns sharply at certain junctures to wail like a blues, which in turn sails off toward the skies like an aria. The text interweaves, within seconds, remorse and hope and self-incrimination and doubt and desire, all versions of the same pain, ending on the fevered wish, given the perfect hell of these emotions, that they disappear. Performing in a viola-toned arrangement that also includes deliberate drumming and guitar lines and somehow very sadly circular piano runs, his strong voice quitting falsetto occasionally to testify in a more natural woodsy midrange, overdubbing himself here and there into anchoring choruses and descants, the soul singer embodies a scene of this psychological complication as well as any capable writer or playwright or novelist or countertenor or actor might. It is something that soul singers, when they put their minds to it, can do.
The soul singer, this time a 20-year-old Londoner named Craig David, is performing “Fill Me In,” a song he wrote with his producer, Mark Hill; it appears on David’s debut album, Born to Do It. He beings with deceptively shrugged-off little vocal riffs that warn, “I got something to say . . . I got something to say/All right . . . ” Then his story, in a crisscrossed Tarantino-esque narrative whose method gets simultaneously re-enacted by the song’s darting yet unjagged two-step rhythm, just explodes: He and a girl who lives nearby have gotten together, returned to her house, thrown the phone on voice mail, popped open a bottle of wine, and slipped into the Jacuzzi, only later to have their party rather unappreciatively apprehended by her parents. The song’s rich E-minor conflict derives from the clash of attitudes that separates the soul singer—”we were just doing things young people in love do,” he croons, unjokingly—from the girl’s parents, who appear only to flare up into steely domestic prosecutors, demanding that he and their daughter fill them in. The song, sung from the soul singer’s cool yet not irresponsible point of view, teems with details—the parents’ observation of “two shadows moving” in their daughter’s “bedroom light,” the white jacket that floats through the song as both erotic love accessory and proof of misconduct—the canny conjunction of which elevates the events of ordinary life into something extraordinary. This is also something that soul singers, when they put their minds to it, can do.
It’s ironic that the stone-classic soul focus Maxwell brings to Now and David so creatively banks Born to Do It off has gone missing the last few seasons. This is because much of what has blurred that clarity in a field that has grown increasingly wider and larger is a yen for the glories of the past. Sade aside, soul music since Lauryn Hill has grown legacy-obsessed; the music’s overriding concerns have come to rest in an admittedly sometimes rich thicket of artiness and history. Convinced that too much contemporary r&b is mere radio dance fodder and/or formula, determined that hip-hop not hog all the big-time conceptual action, many soul singers have grown fussily ambitious; it’s like they now all long to live atop Erykah Badu’s headdress.
This, inevitably, has resulted in reducing to novelty the soul foundation “Fill Me In” modernizes so well and the transcendent performance “This Woman’s Work” exemplifies; the current practice is Destiny’s Child relegating their comparably lucid version of the Bee Gees’ “Emotion” to the end of their current chart-topper. High-minded soul is a big country right now, and it’s all over the map: It is counterintuitive, like D’Angelo, the pleasures of whose exceedingly minor Voodoo rest on the proposition that classic soul is made in a blowsy, improvised, thrown-together, non-meticulous way that no classic soul ever was or has been. It is programmatic, like Hill, the best proof of whose inarguable talents is her songwriting and production of Aretha Franklin’s lasting single “A Rose Is Still a Rose.” It is vanguardish, like Janet Jackson, whose All for You is a stunning album mainly for listeners who have spent the last few seasons with John Digweed and Underworld. It is personality-driven, like Macy Gray and Badu. It is a lot of things. But right now it too infrequently achieves the blinding focus Maxwell and David deliver.
On Now, Maxwell acknowledges the retro vogue without ever getting stuck there. “Get to Know Ya,” a balmy acoustic-sounding funk tune on which the singer celebrates old-style seduction over New Age banging, opens the album, and indeed, a brass section graciously weaves and bobs around, interjecting that crucial ’60s vibe. But Maxwell and his essential Sade-sired co-producer Stuart Matthewman ground the music in a whirling guitar matrix of 16th-notes that subtly communicate the pulsing regularity of current dance music. From there, Maxwell continues to delve into the sensuality that drove 1996’s spacious Urban Hang Suite as well as ’97’s often over-decorated Embrya, but with a newly pared-back attack. He’s in top-notch voice, exposing the rustically stitched seams of reflective, ever-so-faintly country-tinged ballads on “Lifetime” and “For Lovers Only,” riding with equestrian skill the rhythms of a compulsive Middle East-tinged dance tune like “No One” or a more viscously guitar-streaked one, “Temporary Nite.” On “Symptom Unknown,” a soul song written in an international folk style, Maxwell showcases the incongruously harsh edges that give the otherwise luscious timbres of his tenor such dynamic contour and shape; he is, as throughout Now, a soul singer who knows precisely what he’s doing.
Which is David’s whole spectacularly won case on Born to Do It as well. It may be true that David and Hill’s production on the album does high-impact things that U.S. hip-hop/soul makers like Timbaland have pulled off as or more impressively. But the Englishmen’s stroke is to focus their silky streams of street beats and regal Yes riffs not with frantically new hip-hop fireworks, but rather with the timeless concentrations of Cecil and Linda Womack smoking through some old soul tune. With voices raging and caressing and rapping, synth figures barreling across beats that snake and hiss and rattle and roll on a song like “Can’t Be Messing Around,” the album is a masterpiece on tone alone. The songs are always easily literate and sometimes brilliantly allusive—why the hell shouldn’t David’s “7 Days” refer to Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal’s Jam-Lewis-produced “Saturday Love,” especially given how the ’80s smash is every synthbeat the equal of, say, Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and especially given how David and Hill never get lost in jheri curls? But what pulls everything together isn’t the production or the smarts; it’s David’s singing. His voice, a marvel of top-end energy and light, can go as fast as a BMW in the left lane on a European freeway or—as on the elegant rocker “Walking Away” that shows up on the album like a sweet dare—settle down and kick in as calmly as a slowly strummed guitar. David is, like Maxwell on Now, a great soul singer, period. No fashion deters him from his job.