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Exploring Marvin Gaye’s greatest album ‘What’s Going On’

With That’s The Way Love Is, Marvin Gaye made a great leap forward as a vocalist, although he was growing visibly tired of pandering to a certain formula and audience. What’s Going On, in many ways, set out to redress the balance, showing the artist – and he was an artist – as the committed storyteller he had long wanted to be, melding such disparate influences as psychedelia, pop, blues, folk and jazz under one tidy compendium. The work also doubled as a work of intent, the sound of a black man giving an overview of the America that was herding people of colour into their designated boxes.

Not once throughout the album do the themes sound contrived, but demonstrate the fervent, unexpurgated feelings of an artist in the midst of an existential crisis. The title track is noteworthy, but the same could be said for ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’, a scorching account of life for an impoverished black man, set in the country that was supposed to have his best interests at heart. “We laughed about putting lyrics in about high taxes,” co-writer James Nyx Jr. recalled, ’cause both of us owed a lot. And we talked about how the government would send guys to the moon, but not help folks in the ghetto.”

The single was a top ten hit for Marvin Gaye, but the deeper cuts demonstrate a songwriter in the midst of an evolution, understanding that the world was getting ready for a change of some sort. The sparsely produced ‘Save the Children’ demonstrates the artist in a state of confusion, as he enters into a deep trance, espousing the virtues of love and peace above all other things in this world. This was an album rich in sentiment, sincerity and soul, but there was more to the album, especially considering the impact it was having on the American wilderness.

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The genius of the album is how the vaudeville of ‘What’s Happening Brother’ made way for the opulence of ‘Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)’. There’s no discounting the drama is bolstered by the reality of the situation, and no matter how lush the guitars may sound, there’s no denying that the emotional core tears into the system.

Ultimately, the album is one of hope and goodwill, recognising that good vibrations and warm spirits are the key factors to rapprochement in the world as a gesture of kindness and consideration. The album played like a Greatest Hits, not least because of its rich offerings of melodies, but because of the scope – from disenfranchisement to the heroin epidemic that was raiding America – was so rich in theme.

But the darkness kicks in, particularly on ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’, the rapier-wit and jagged edges coming to an icy halt on a three-minute track that undresses the worries of the listener in a series of gently moving images and lyrics. Gaye’s voice dominates the record, and the instruments chime along, never resting for a second, yet happy in their place to rest behind the singer-songwriter whose face is plastered on the album.
It’s certainly made an impression on the public: Elvis Costello called it one of the “500 Albums You Need”, in an interview with Vanity Fair, and it’s possible to discern from Michael Jackson‘s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ some of the flavours that went into the writing and recording of Gaye’s opus.

The album grew more prescient during the Donald Trump presidency, as people began to query the intentions of their leader at a time when race relations were at an all-time low. Like most art, the album flowed with the times.

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