Some dudes really ‘get’ reggae. They’re all up in the Kingston vibe, they’re always near or in supply of the freshest weed and they can recite every single Wailers lyric off the tattoos they got on their legs during one particularly long, lazy summer back in ’91. I am not one of those people. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only times I have listened to reggae willingly is when I’ve been blazed or been on at a beach bar in some Asian country. That’s not to say that I’m against the genre; rather, I just feel like most of its great strides ahead happened years before I was born, and you don’t need to go actively seeking those classics because chances are they’ll come and find you anyway. Obviously there are newer bands and artists, including Katchafire and Fat Freddy’s Drop from around our way and Matisyahu from The States, who are pushing the envelope, but one wonders whether it even needs to be pushed. Something that was perfected thirty years ago has seeped into other art forms or remained pristine in its original incarnation, the best of which, in my humble and likely controversial opinion, is this song.
It goes without saying that Marley’s importance rests not only in his music but what he used it to say. As a cultural icon for his country to the world at large, he opened up a dialogue that far transcended his melodies, speaking out against the inequality and impoverishment he grew up with and promoting the Rastafari lifestyle in a far more zealous and militant manner than his mild-mannered songs impressed. By the time ‘Could You Be Loved’ was released, Marley was one foot into the grave; it came from his final album and the twelfth he’d released in less than two decades. It’s allegedly one of his most religious pieces of work, but if you asked me about it, I’d probably just tell you that’s it’s got gorgeous harmonies, an authentic groove and a bass line that’s perhaps one of the best The Wailers ever conceived of. For those of us outside the nexus of reggae, the sound, like political rap of the late ’80s and punk of the ’70s, has become a duplicate version of itself. It remains powerful, but for different reasons.
As a piece of music, ‘Could You Be Loved’, which neatly drops the question mark, is as close to perfection as it gets. There were a lot of members of the Wailers, even though most of the founding members had died by this point, and you can hear all the little intricacies of their work by focusing on the accompaniment with proper headphones. With something like four or five back vocalists, percussionist and keyboard players, they all contribute small parts that make for a gorgeously textured whole. The clavinet sound that Stevie Wonder had popularised joins the bass, while jungle samples meld in lead keyboard lines and tight guitars. With a foundation bed that strong, it’s easy for Marley to soar overboard with long elegant notes in the chorus and those urgent calls to action in the verse. And that’s perhaps what I like the best about this particular piece of reggae. Everyone is clearly talented, but nobody is showing off. There’s no urgency, even though you can feel it in the vocals. It’s a push/pull dynamic that’s so discreet that the average listener won’t even notice as they’re bopping along. But let me tell you, you notice it when you’re stoned. It’s like there’s a never-ending hall of mirrors inside this band, and they multiply with every bar. I can remember that even now, when I haven’t been high in years.
Maybe those Rastafarians were onto something.
Bob Marley – ‘Could You Be Loved’