Maxwell albums are like comets: They don’t appear often, but when they do, they have a way of reminding you how small you are in the vast scheme of the universe. A song like Maxwell’s version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” feels like evidence of the existence of hyper-evolved human beings in the world. His voice on that song is a technical marvel, all these falsetto swoops and restrained pyrotechnic howls. But he delivers all of it with so much feeling that it never comes across as being showy; it’s like he’s using his absurd range to communicate emotions that the rest of us can barely process. And when you think of how he’s using all those gifts to interpret a Kate Bush song, a song about the intense and joyous agony of childbirth, it becomes a work of unbelievable empathy — even more so when you realize that Maxwell doesn’t even have kids, that he’s working in a realm of pure abstraction. Listening to a song like that, I feel something like how the mere humans in X-Men comics must feel when they learn that there are other people out there who were born with amazing powers, that we are not among their number. It’s wonder, and it’s also fear.
With all that in mind, it’s almost comforting that Maxwell takes many, many years between albums. His last one, BLACKsummers’night, came seven years ago. That album came eight years after the previous one, and the idea was that it would be the first in a trilogy. That’s still the idea; with its confusingly similar title, the new blackSUMMERS’night is the second of the three acts. We shouldn’t expect the third one anytime soon. If Maxwell was able to crank these albums out much faster, it would almost be scary. And anyway, he’s conditioned us to expect these long stretches of silence now. It’s not a Frank Ocean situation, where it feels like the world is always fiending for a new album. In just about every way, he’s more like Sade, the artist who might have more in common with him than any other. Every once in a long while, he’ll come up with some expansively squelchy new set of love songs. And then he’ll be gone.
We can forgive Maxwell for not caring about matters of time because time doesn’t play a role in his music, which follows its own rhythms. Maxwell doesn’t structure his songs the way other musicians do. He lets them unfold slowly and sprawl. His great subject is love — the point where you get so lost in another person that you don’t know where you end and the other person begins. For the past 20 years, his music has served a sort of Isley Brothers/Barry White role, where people assume that he’s there to soundtrack sex. And his music will absolutely work for that. But it’s not utilitarian fuck-music. It’s expansive and expressive, and it dwells on heartbreak almost as much as on rapture.
One consequence of waiting so long to release albums: You’re noticeably older every time we hear from you. Maxwell is in his early forties now, and while his falsetto is still some sort of unearthly dove-coo, his voice has taken on new shades and textures. There are moments on the new album where he finds an old-school gospel-informed soul singers’ rasp, and that’s a relatively new thing for him. He uses it the way the greats do: to convey a sort of desperation, the sound of a man barely holding it together. That works equally well for desire and desolation, and the album has plenty of both.
A curious thing about Maxwell is that his voice makes confessions sound like come-ons, and vice versa. There’s a moment on “Listen Hear” where he’s explicitly talking about his own shortcomings: “I’m confusing at times, sometimes I might lie / I’m scared and I’m shy / To show you how weak I am / Because sometimes I am not the kind of man I would like to be.” And it just makes him more sympathetic. Maxwell can be straightforward enough: “I just want a Michelle Obama lady / To hold me down when the world’s crazy.” More often, though, he’s all dazed imagery: “Can we swim in a lake by the ocean / We’ll be one like drops in slow motion.” Sometimes, Maxwell’s lyrics, at least on paper, are just objectively terrible: “You are the harvest / Your garden helps to feed me.” But he sings it with such sincere, wounded grace that you never question it.
Musically, he’s working with the same core of musicians on every song and co-producing with longtime collaborator Hod David. There’s a sense of live-in-studio interplay to the musicians, who build tricky and intricate grooves that feel like they could go on forever. There’s a lot of jazz in the album’s sound, and also a lot of disco. “One Time” has a glorious horn that reminds me of OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” but about twice as complicated. Beautifully distorted and bluesy Isaac Hayes-esque guitars show up on “Lost” and “Listen Hear.” The rhythms undulate, but they never shift. The horns and guitars and electric pianos all find room to vamp, but there’s a basic, pulsing foundation to these songs. You can dance to some of them. The last album had “Pretty Wings,” a perfect little pop song in the midst of all that miasma. The new album has nothing like that, though first single “Lake By The Ocean” comes closest. No famous guests or other singers show up. This is shy, inward-looking music, in its own way. It doesn’t care about anything happening outside its door.
Twenty years ago, when Maxwell first showed up, critics wrote about him as a throwback figure, an organic auteur in a digital age. They lumped him in with other new arrivals like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu and made him a part of the nascent neo-soul scene. But Maxwell never fit in at that party. He was his own little personal mini-genre. And that’s where he’s remained, coming up with these dazzling, dazzled globs of beauty whenever he feels ready. And when those albums come out, we should treasure them. We don’t know how long it’ll be before the next one comes along.
BlackSUMMERS’night is out 7/1 on Columbia.
Other noteworthy albums out this week:
• Blood Orange’s sensitive, aware modern soul opus Freetown Sound.
• Bat For Lashes’ doomed-love concept album The Bride.
• Metronomy’s shimmery, melodic Summer 08.
• GØGGS’ gnarly self-titled garage rock debut.
• Blink-182’s arena pop-punk return California.
• Broken Beak’s emo debut Some Nerve.
• Terry’s warped psych-punker Terry HQ.
• Stephen Steinbrink’s blurry, twinkling Anagrams.
• Message To Bears’ ambient-electro meditation Carved From Tides.
• Thee Oh Sees’ concert recording Live In San Francisco.
• Boss Hog’s Brood Star EP.
• NITE-FUNK’s self-titled EP.