Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Maxwell – Pretty Wings

Eight years away, and he’s back with a three-part concept album…


Matt Cibula: I am pretty sure it is illegal to have sex with birds but I am forgiving it in this case because of the elegance of Maxwell and the backing voxes and the horns and the effortless swing and the summery sexiness of it all. Welcome back, dude, you were missed.

Alfred Soto: The icky title augured terrible things, but listening to this reminded me how much I missed these humble demonstrations of virtuosity on the R&B charts. It also reminded me how much I’ve missed Maxwell. Interpret the title metaphor as an explanation for how he soars using soul horns, a falsetto, and a little gravel, even when at the three-minute mark I opened my eyes and saw him smiling down on top of me.

Martin Kavka: God, I’d forgotten how good Maxwell is. Four minutes, and I’m in a puddle of tears. How could a relationship of such love — and it must have been love, because otherwise Maxwell could not have wrung so much emotion out of a single breath — have ended so poorly? I’d write more, but I have to listen to this twenty more times now.

Chuck Eddy: So, as I often tend to wonder with Maxwell-type pretenders, who exactly are the classic soul singers he’s supposedly channeling who sounded this snoozeful way back when? I mean, he’s more emotive than Lenny Kravitz, sure, but not that much. This thing just wafts on and on aimlessly, more like one of those gooshy mid-career Prince ballads I never understood why anybody cared about than like any essential old soul 45 on my shelf. The music-boxy chime sounds are purty, though. And it’s kind of amusing how the horns that enter around the three-minute mark keep accidentally quoting “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band. Which was funkier.

Alex Ostroff: The opening chimes of Pretty Wings remind me of Signs by Bloc Party. Even as they morph into first synths, and then the warm tones of a guitar and horns, the eerie dissonance lends the song a bittersweet mood. Like Bloc Party, Maxwell’s greatest strength here is not his (impressive!) voice or writing, but atmosphere. In a song simultaneously spacious and layered, Maxwell remains the centre of attention, while shifting sonics float around him, fleetingly drawing focus and adding texture. R&B slow jams, no matter how accomplished, always risk sounding same-y and undistinguished to those unaccustomed to the genre; Pretty Wings soars.

Michaelangelo Matos: From the guy whose are-you-OK-dude? status updates inspired the funniest presentation I saw at this year’s EMP Pop Conference, when Jason King of NYU’s music school (among many hats) turned Maxwell’s weird commitment issues with his muse and their public display into a portrait of an artist you really hate not being able to quite give up on. King spoke for thousands in wondering aloud why this guy wouldn’t just write and record some fucking music already. So he has. Holy shit. I always liked him fine without going much further into it, and now I wonder what the fuck my problem was. The way this builds is a master class: I like how the opening toy loop evokes twee post-rave without drawing too much attention to itself, and the horns’ entrance at 2:18 is amazingly subtle and graceful. But it was all over for me near the end, after the breakdown and re-up, when he hits the Prince voice. Not the falsetto or tenor or swoops or timbre, all of which are Maxwell’s own. It’s the hard growl, a dead ringer for Prince when he gets bluesy and gravelly, one of my favorite of his voices, and as Maxwell does it he then just starts doing Prince–all of him, as if the form of “Slow Love” somehow contained “Adore.”

Ian Mathers: I don’t like Maxwell, but the distant windchimes/Chrono Trigger feel of the production here is great enough I was willing to ignore him – until he shuts down all the interesting parts of the production, sets the smarm to 10 and goes from “pretty wings” to “pre-tay wangs.” I’d really adore an instrumental version of the first half of this, though.

Hillary Brown: Smooth like a carob ice pop.

Martin Skidmore: Old soul is my favourite music ever, so I am all for people trying to do that now, but it does seem that smooth ’80s styles are more popular. Maxwell has quite a sweet, high voice, and he writes serious romantic songs, but he never seems to quite grab me.

Anthony Easton: Maxwell has a gorgeous voice, and he allows it to do things other R&B singers refuse. This is a historically minded slow jam, smooth and well constructed, with just enough formal innovation that we can move away from the cliched lyrics and underwhelming instrumentation.

Rodney J. Greene: Even with its gamelan adornments and electronic textures that are interesting without calling great attentions to themselves, the instrumental template could almost border on schmaltzy, especially once the horn section adds just the right amount of moonbeams to the mix. This is Maxwell’s show, however, and he’s just too damn mature to allow this to dive off some melodramatic cliff. Crooning in a falsetto both wizened and wondrous, the vision of love Maxwell conjures is so simultaneously grounded in the realities of a relationship and fantastically romantic that it took me at least twenty plays to figure out that this is an “Another Star”-style, you-move-on-because-I-can’t breakup song, Stevie’s obstinate wounded pride replaced by a harder-earned yet more ultimately rewarding understanding.

Al Shipley:The first time I heard this, flipping around the radio dial as I headed home late the other night, it sounded so perfect, from the twinkling bells to the bassline hum, that I just sat there in the parking lot letting the car run until the song ended. If only every artist that took 8 years to make an album came back with something that actually sounded this beautifully detailed, like they spent all that time fussing over every little texture and moment and it came out crystal clear and fully realized.

10 Responses to “Maxwell – Pretty Wings”

  1. Ian’s Chrono Trigger reference has done more to make me go and listen to this properly than all the more positive reviews.

  2. See, Alfred, this is how those pesky rumors get started. :D

  3. On a side note: formatting that turns emoticons into smileys is really obnoxious.

  4. I gave it a 10 and y’all gave it a 7. I gave Taylor Swift a 7 and y’all gave her 10s. I think I’ve figured out my place around here.

  5. Gamelan! That’s what it was!

  6. Maxwell is way better than Taylor Swift.

  7. Chuck Eddy’s first sentence OTM. Give me Ne-Yo or The-Dream over this bland snoozefest.

  8. You and I, Matos — together we can fight crime.

  9. Like watching – and hearing – honey dry.

  10. ughhgh @ jonathan