Music, like any form of art, invariably finds itself making a commentary on the society or culture it finds itself in. It just happens that What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is one of the more famous, and more obvious examples. The titular track, which opens the album, confronts us with the question immediately despite being written over 40 years ago. What was going on? More importantly, is it still going on?
Much like Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, this album is a song cycle. One track bleeds into another, whilst maintaining a central theme throughout. As such it is difficult at times to actually know when the track has changed so I will not be so easily able to refer to tracks on their own as they all form part of one consistent whole.
Like I mentioned in my coverage of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, I don’t really have much in the way of touchstones when it comes to soul music other than Janelle Monae. This means that once again I am thinking back to her last two albums and being able to draw parallels between the sounds. This is never a bad thing because she is one of those artists that used to be an exception that proved the rule when it came to my musical taste. Now, with my exposure to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder now fully under-way I think my ears are beginning to open up.
Listening to this album it was hard not to have my mind stray to the events of earlier this year when Marvin Gaye’s daughter used a lot of rather out of place superlatives to describe the trial between her inheritance of copyright and Robin Thicke. For someone living off their father’s career whose main highlight is an album addressing the cruelties and incoherent attitudes surrounding the Vietnam through songs focusing on love and understanding… I don’t know. Feels a little strange to me.