Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

What's Going On album cover.

This week, I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”. What can I learn as a songwriting musician from this great album? I looked forward to this album since starting my weekly albums. This album was mostly new to me, but enjoys critical acclaim. Unfortunately, “What’s Going On” disappointed me. It’s a concept album created as a song-cycle; For me, this is the album’s source of weakness. The songs flow into each other with such continuity that there’s an overwhelming sense of monotony. This monotony makes the otherwise great songs boring. It’s a weird situation, where I can say the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t like the album, but I like some individual songs.

The only song I knew before this week, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)“, remains my favorite on the album. It follows the song “God Is Love” with a noticeable yet smooth key change and drop in tempo. The guitar picks up rhythmically, offsetting the tempo change. A woodblock fills the role traditionally occupied by a snare drum, soaked in what sounds like a spring reverb. It reminds me of some percussion on “Pet Sounds” as well as my grandparent’s Kimball organ. I love the sound. Swelling strings bring overall motion to the song and draw attention to away from the rather repetitive rhythm section. Two of my favorite sounds, tinkling celeste and ringing vibraphone, provide melodic accompaniment. I believe the chord progression is a I7-iv7-ii-IV, like a smoother variation of the 50s doo-wop progression. Part of what works with this song is that it is a break from the monotony of the rest of the album. It has its own groove and sounds slightly different.

The opening title track “What’s Going On” and the closing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)“. “What’s Going On” has very similar use of rhythm guitar as “Mercy Mercy Me”. The opening track starts the album off with the “welcome home from the war” celebration sound, but that sense of joy is slowly worn away until finally reaching the “Inner City Blues” ending. Conceptually, the journey from start to finish makes great sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great listening. I particularly enjoy the rhythm of “Inner City Blues”. The first beat of each measure gets emphasis, with the fourth beat given a rest. The pattern rolls over a two measure sequence, with the first beat of the first measure getting stronger emphasis than the second measure. The bongos add nice depth and movement to the rhythm. It’s one of the few songs on the album where I don’t get bored with the bongos.

Lyrically the album falls short for me as well. There’s the overall concept of the returning war veteran to see the injustice in the society that they’re returning to. A society that they feel deeply apart of, even if they feel disconnected by the distance of time spent over-seas. The concept should provide great opportunity to tell stories that get across a strong message. Unfortunately, these songs often “tell, don’t show“. Some lines sound preachy, while others simply sound like bumper-sticker slogans. Perhaps they require being heard from the perspective of 1971, but that IS 6 years before I was born. What Marvin Gaye is communicating remains relevant today, even if some details of the circumstances have changed; the telling is not engaging. It leaves little more to think or feel beyond “Yes, that’s true. He’s right.”

I learned more about things I want to avoid rather than things I can apply to my own music. I appreciate the grooving basslines, but they are repeated too many times. My biggest problem with this album is the sameness. So, I learned that variety is a good thing. I also learned that I really do prefer some story-telling over platitudes. Oh well, I don’t have to like every great album.

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