distinct from Feb. 14 roses and Victoria's hard-to-miss Secrets, true romance is rooted in the shiver of unexpected pleasure. "I don't know where that come from!" Al Green testifies in a 1978 concert recording, just after releasing a falsetto swoon in the middle of "You Ought to Be With Me." The prevailing view is that Green's life has been a running battle between physical desire and spiritual salvation, with God winning for good sometime around 1980. There's certainly some truth to this, but after listening to "Anthology," a four-CD retrospective of Green's work from the '70s, I'm convinced that the miracle of his best music comes from its easy union of heaven and earth.
Arkansas-born but raised in gospel, Green was still imitating Sam Cooke and James Brown when he met producer Willie Mitchell in 1969. He found his own voice with help from Mitchell and the Hi studio band, musicians who seemed to complete him like a sympathetic lover. Between 1971 and 1974, Green was an unavoidable presence, producing one smooth soul hit after another: "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You," "Call Me (Come Back Home)" and "Love and Happiness" to name a few. They're all collected here and they sound as good as ever. But some of the most potent revelations found on "Anthology" come from lesser known tracks like "Simply Beautiful" and the astonishingly lovely "Have You Been Making Out OK?" On the latter, Green consoles an ex-lover going through a bad breakup with someone else -- "Did he make you happy, did he make you whole?" -- with enough tenderness to remind us that sometimes the most telling expression of love arrives after it supposedly has ended. More than, say, Marvin Gaye, Green endures as a romantic icon because he was capable not just of lust but also of surrender and devotion. The rutting desire of "I'm a Ram" -- hard funk dressed in Old Testament imagery -- was soon replaced by the ecstatic submission of "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" and the grateful thanks of "Look What You've Done for Me."
It's tempting to cast Green's conversion to the Right Reverend as the result of a lightning bolt from above -- in his case, the scalding hot grits poured on him by a jealous, suicidal girlfriend in 1974. Yet his naked struggle with faith can be traced to 1972 and the eerie echo-chamber plea of "Jesus is Waiting." By the time of his accident, Green was starting to show the strain of leading two lives. You can hear it most clearly on "Take Me to the River," a tense, almost Biblical tale of petty betrayal and sanctified sex. From the mid-'70s on, Green's music drifts higher and higher, a transfer of affection that isn't as jarring as it might be because he had been delivering Sunday sermons on Saturday nights for so many years.
Over the course of 61 tracks, "Anthology" offers the usual box-set treats -- all the hits plus obscurities, outtakes, and nearly an hour's worth of live recordings. The latter are particularly revealing because they provide evidence that Green's genius isn't confined to the studio and suggest he's human, too. (The nine-minute medley of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and "Let's Stay Together" sounds as kitschy as a Vegas stage show.) But give "Anthology" executive producer Robert Gordon extra credit for including a dozen spoken-word excerpts, many from Robert Mugge's difficult-to-find documentary, "The Gospel According to Al Green." Even Green's speaking voice is musical, whether he's talking about driving his girlfriend nuts during the writing of "Tired of Being Alone" or discussing the hallowed mission behind his music.
Though Green has made a few stabs at secular music since the late '70s, he's mostly confined himself to singing gospel and tending to the flock at his Memphis church. "Somebody said, 'Who should I look for?'" Green half-preaches, half-sings from the pulpit on disc four of "Anthology." "And somebody said, 'He's got eyes like balls of fire ... feet like polished brass ... hair like lamb wool ... a voice like Minny Water ...' Can I get a witness here?" Whether or not you're tempted to say yes, I can guarantee you'll feel jealous that Green seems permanently in love with someone else.