Not to suggest that pack mentality rules—and has always ruled—the neo-soul movement, but what’s with all these long-dormant Soulquarians and Soulquarians-in-the-making keeping us all waiting for nearly a decade for them to drop a full-length LP and then announcing grand, multi-album projects? In most cases, I think we can all agree that the alternation between indolence and overweening ambition is spliff spillover, but we’re talking about Maxwell here, neo-soul’s most prominent altar boy. Potentially besting Erykah Badu’s New AmErykah diptych (the second half of which has yet to be released), Maxwell’s latest—and, with an eight-year lapse since 2001’s Now, very late—album BLACKsummers’night is actually the first in a proposed three-part series, each homing in on one specific facet of the singer-songwriter’s torturously becalmed guise. Later discs will purportedly delve deeper into Maxwell’s Prince-playbooked twin obsessions: sex and spirituality, though I can’t imagine anything he’ll sing on either topic will be as riotously self-definitive as his wild n’ out Unplugged performance of “Closer,” turning Trent Reznor’s dirty synth-pop malfeasance into a God-huffing, chest-puffing exhibition of tambourine-laced Church Pride.
Even aside from the inversion of Reznor’s carnal intent, Maxwell’s version of “Closer” is a surfeit of transgressions, a celebration of emotional and sexual sensitivity temporarily suspended by unapologetic, expulsive Old Time Religion. In stark contrast, the downbeat BLACKsummers’night suggests the aught years haven’t been filled with many moments like this. Maybe the album is meant to be a simple reiteration of Maxwell’s quiet storminess, and maybe its emotional delicacy and unfailing musical refinement are meant as a reassurance before the follow-up albums dig into less self-protective territory.
What we have here is a brisk and intangible 37 minutes of grown-folks grooves trying to mask an inner torment Maxwell’s still not quite ready to fully explore musically. The funny thing is that the repression turns what could’ve been a by-the-numbers adult contemporary R&B album into a frequently disquieting one. The hustling shuffle of “Cold” (Maxwell blaming her) is underpinned by roiling jazz organ groans, the live band arrangement of “Bad Habits” (Maxwell blaming himself) opens up and snaps shut at a moment’s notice, and the very title refrain of the stately “Fistful of Tears” (Maxwell blaming himself for blaming her) restates Maxwell’s musical commitment to feminizing masculinity, or vice versa. Upon first blush, there isn’t much to chew on in BLACKsummers’night. Upon second pass, the absences become haunting.