Sound Opinions’ Greg Kot recently spoke of Marvin Gaye’s “deep fallow period” in the mid and late 70’s. Certainly, 1974-1980 was a difficult time for Gaye, who released only two albums during that seven year stretch. He was coping with drug abuse, marital, and money issues. But musically fallow? Hardly. When he hit the studio, the results were fantastic, in the way Sly Stone’s drug addled but artistically triumphant early 70’s were. Gaye’s 1978 album, Here, My Dear is his divorce-themed opus. Critics have warmed to Here since its release (which was a major commercial disappointment). I Want You, Gaye’s 1976 album, spawned a hit, but hasn’t seen the same level of love.
Maybe it’s the disco: there’s a healthy measure of suave production on I Want You. But it’s not vibrant or upbeat--the music here doesn’t soundtrack a night on the town, but rather a night spent watching the dance floor, with a head clouded by burning thoughts (there's a song called "Feel All My Love Inside"). These thoughts will be satiated, if you are Marvin Gaye, but without the joy depicted on the iconic album cover.
I Want You is basically the second straight album Gaye recorded for his mistress, after turning away from the political themes that had brought him new levels of success and respect. By 1973’s Let’s Get It On, he’d pivoted hard towards carnal themes, which were never simple expressions of pleasure. (Even What’s Going On is suffused with...well, follow this link) For I Want You, Gaye ceded songwriting and production duties to Leon Ware, a second-rate R&B maestro. Ware followed his big break in working with Gaye with an album called Musical Massage.
Yet, Gaye was still Gaye. His vocals are so full of sweetness and desire, even at their most spaced-out. He occasionally breaks out into gorgeous melodies, as in “Since I Had You,” worthy of classic Motown. “After The Dance” sounds like a Miracles song at half-speed. But Gaye will lapse back into airy, broken refrains, often providing atmosphere rather than fronting his own album.
He mightily complements Ware’s production, whose downbeat obscurantism recalls There’s A Riot Goin On or Exile On Main Street. The strings, horns, and guitar all blur into a soupy mix. The bass--played by several musicians throughout the album--is consistently funky, but in a dead-eyed, adrift way. The whole thing just has that vibe.