Soul on fire

Can Maxwell save the neo-soul movement?

Can Maxwell save the neo-soul movement?

Singer Maxwell has just released BLACKsummers'night, his first album in eight years. ((Mario Anzuoni/Reuters) )

Like "new wave" before it, the term "neo-soul" was initially coined as a marketing term for a category of musical acts that often had little in common. Even now, the name feels dated, despite the futuristic air the three-letter prefix possessed when the movement hit its high-water mark in the late '90s. ("Neo" would also serve as the name of Keanu Reeves' character in The Matrix (1999), a good reason to retire it altogether.)

As imperfect as the term may be, neo-soul is still an effective tag to describe the mix of chic modernity and time-honoured tradition that distinguished the genre's best examples. Neo-soul artists tried to look both backward and forward, acting in the belief that a continuum might exist, connecting gospel, jazz and R&B through soul's golden age into the present. Sinuous, sly yet unabashedly earnest, neo-soul became a kind of haven for listeners turned off by the hedonism of mainstream hip-hop and club jams. The artists most closely associated with the neo-soul movement have been strangely silent for much of this decade, but you can hear that sensibility at work on the new album by Brooklyn singer Maxwell.

Bad Habits, the first song on BLACKsummers'night – Maxwell's first album since 2001, and one in a planned trilogy of like-titled discs – is a typically sumptuous affair. As Maxwell's multi-tracked counter-tenor vocals convey ecstasies both spiritual and carnal, the lyrics deploy the ever-popular comparison between hot love and drug addiction ("we get together, it's an overdose"). The rich Hammond organ sound, the jazzy interplay of the horns and the perfectly-in-the-pocket rhythm section are all signifiers of vintage soul and R&B, even if the song on the whole has a state-of-the-art sheen.

(Sony Music Canada)

Maxwell’s return after a long hiatus has apparently been a very welcome one – the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's chart, selling a career-best 316,000 units in its first week. But his reappearance also points to how badly the neo-soul vanguard dropped the ball with their collective ambition to retrofit classic soul for a new century. Maxwell was only off the radar for eight years. D'Angelo – a bolder, more brazen singer who helped establish a more adventurous yet laid-back kind of R&B – still hasn't recorded a followup to Voodoo (2000), a sly, smouldering masterpiece that represents the artistic apex of neo-soul. D'Angelo was waylaid by various drug-related convictions, though he did recently make an appearance on Q-Tip's 2008 album The Renaissance (and spent some time in the studio with Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo Green and Raphael Saadiq).

Many of the ladies of neo-soul also had trouble coping with the pressures created by their early success. Hip, jazzy and witty, Erykah Badu's debut disc, Baduizm (1997), was a triple-platinum success, but her fan base dwindled when subsequent recordings got stranger and more insular. Badu sounded revitalized on last year's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), creating a more direct musical statement while retaining her maverick tendencies. Unfortunately, Lauryn Hill has yet to rediscover her muse. It's been 11 years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — neo-soul's best-selling record — and eight since MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a combative, often uncomfortably confessional work in which Hill aired many of her misgivings about fame. (Now, she lives a quieter sort of life as a mother of five.)

Anthony Hamilton and Angie Stone also continued to make neo-soul despite the popularity of the stark electronic textures preferred by artist/producers such as Timbaland and Lil Jon. The unabashedly melodic music of Ne-Yo and The-Dream – evinced in their own songs and hits for Rihanna, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Ciara – represents another incarnation of the neo-soulsters' ambitions. Ironically, it may be artists of a paler persuasion who have done the most to extend the movement's esthetic. British boffins Lewis Taylor and Jamie Lidell, Winnipeg soul boy Remy Shand and the mildly cheesy but irresistibly smooth Robin Thicke have filled this decade with thrilling, eminently soulful recordings. 

Back in the late '90s, it was easy to hear how Maxwell and D'Angelo drew inspiration from neo-soul's essential texts, especially the landmark albums from soul's most artistically fertile period: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1970) and the increasingly sensuous albums that followed; Stevie Wonder's extraordinary run from Talking Book (1972) to Songs in the Key of Life (1976); and Curtis Mayfield's equally questioning and vanguard music of the same time.

Erykah Badu may soon release a follow-up to her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

These artists routinely mixed up supple soul and hard-edged funk in the same song, but their '90s heirs seemed more comfortable in only one of the two modes. Serene and sensitive, Maxwell was the one who could be heard covering Kate Bush's This Woman's Work. Meanwhile, D'Angelo was at his most iconic while stripped to the waist and out-shrieking Prince in the video for Untitled (How Does It Feel).

Despite the weight of expectation, Maxwell sounds remarkably relaxed on BLACKsummers'night. But he also uses the opportunity to challenge himself —BLACKsummers'night doesn't mark a grand unification of neo-soul's Apollonian and Dionysian sides, but it does contain some of Maxwell's most urgent and exciting music.

Songs such as Help Somebody and the nimbly funky instrumental Phoenixrise have a tension and drive that had rarely existed in his music before. A plea for compassion and expression of self-criticism "in a world that's so wild," Help Somebody surges and swells with horns, guitars and the kind of insidious, insistent keyboard riff that used to propel Isaac Hayes' most ominous songs. The pleading in Love You has the same kind of punchiness, a fine complement to the rich tonal palette provided by his backing band.

Playing Possum and Pretty Wings are more characteristic showcases for his feathery falsetto – a Maxwell album wouldn't be worth much if it didn't work wonders in the boudoir. Yet the mellowest moments of BLACKsummers'night display the craftsmanship and finesse that have helped his early works stand the test of time. Indeed, the best of Maxwell's music deserves to lose the "neo" prefix and be judged alongside the songs that originally inspired him.

BLACKsummers'night is in stores now.

Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.