Well, it's finally here.
And, let's just get this out of the way right now: it's unbelievably good.
To say that this album lives up to the enormous self-created hype is an understatement. Not only is it as good as I had hoped for, it's even deeper, even more perfected, even more developed and ultimately ends up as being the next logical step in Maxwell's evolution.
As usual, Max maintains his high standard of lyric writing, offering up eight concise meditations on the dark side of relationships. Songs like 'Fistful of Tears' or 'Bad Habits' would otherwise be considered downright depressing were it not for the ace musical backdrops and fantastic song development. And that's really what you have to marvel at with this album: every song feels labored over, but not excessively.
The songs have clearly been fleshed out and all avenues have been explored. This shows up in the form of the arrangements taking unexpected turns, horn charts accenting and complimenting the rhythms and the diversity of sounds. There are modern synth washes alongside grand pianos, screaming electric guitar solos right next to strummed acoustic chords, live and programmed drums and jubilant horn sections trading harmony with a background chorus. Practically every song here sounds like it could have come from sessions for different albums. But all this somehow works and, despite its short run time, it's one of the most cohesive albums in recent times. And, with its warm organics and outstanding production, it's probably Max's funkiest album to date.
As far as highlights... well, the album truly does play like a highlight reel. Any of the first seven tracks could easily be considered the album's centerpiece. 'Playing Possum' is the only track that strikes me as one of those real deep Maxwell album cuts that wouldn't ever make it to the radio and 'Phoenix Rise' is a short outro type instrumental vamp (a ruined opportunity, because it's great otherwise), but literally everything else here has hit potential. And not in that contrived radio ready way either. On the contrary, the music on this album is just that well constructed.
It's resonatingly catchy and never becomes overbearing, despite threatening to at certain points. With a theatric, epic song like 'Help Somebody', the swooping rush of harmony and purposely non-descript dramatic lyrics seems to be over the top, but then the song simply ends unexpectedly, supposing such a boombastic performance was destined to crumble on an album like this. It's also possibly my favorite song.
With this album, Maxwell has confirmed his enduring relevance in modern music. He has gone from a curiosity with unlimited potential to a fully formed and matured artist. It's too early to say where this one will fall in regards to the rest of his catalogue, but he has easily topped Now. And what's more, he has managed to sound even more relevant than before his hiatus.
At points during my initial listen to the album, I got worried. Worried because this is a planned trilogy and it occurred to me that it will be incredibly difficult for him to stay this consistent over the course of two more albums. If this is an indicator though, I'm fretting over nothing. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's finally been unleashed and it was more than worth the wait.