Soul legend's first recordings with Willie Mitchell in 17 years

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The Hip Priest

And he can’t (stop). The Reverend Al Green (some of his Memphis flock have to be told he was once a pop singer before he forsook it for gospel) has decided to record some secular songs again. His first since ’94’s Don’t Look Back (itself a “comeback”), and?more significantly?his first with Willie Mitchell, the producer behind his greatest hits, since ’86. I think all fans of old-school soul will join me in getting rather excited about this and saying: wow.

The dream team parted in the mid-’70s, Green opening his own studio and making the immaculate The Belle Album, then lesser works. They did regroup for two middling mid-’80s records. Al’s focus is on The Lord Jesus these days, and no whining music critics will change that, but once every decade or so something in his unique wiring tells him he fancies a flirty shimmy, just for the heaven of it. I Can’t Stop is great. It’s not amazing; I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s up there with his classics (not when The Lord Jesus is looking on, anyway), but it’s great. Green’s voice still does insanely beautiful things, and he knows it, and so does them often.

The sad ‘rumour’ is that Mitchell is now in pitifully poor health, and that Green got together with him at Memphis’ Royal Studio for this as a gesture, a send-off. Which, of course, makes it all the more poignant. That they’ve re-ignited the magic even in flashes, under such circumstances, is a wonderful thing. If a couple of tracks are a bit ploddy, nothing special, several really do take off and fly. Just as Green is well aware of what people want him to do with the box of tricks that is his voice, Mitchell’s hip to exactly how to support and bolster that charmed instrument. The strings sob, the organ slides (on “Raining In My Heart” there’s a cheeky echo of “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?”), the horns and rhythms are impeccably restrained yet rambunctious. The title cut and “Play To Win” frolic; the six-minute “My Problem Is You” is a concerted attempt at the big, slow, slushy epic. With a little goodwill, it gets there.

Let’s not damn this with faint praise. It may not kiss the sublime, as this pairing has done in the past, but it’s heavenly to hear their happy, heartbreaking Wall Of Hug one more time.