Al Green is a man renowned for being sweet. Some of his most-beloved tunes, from ‘Call Me (Come Back Home)’ through to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction favourite, ‘Let’s Stay Together’ revolve around taking the most mundane experiences of love and making them sound like the greatest thing ever. Moreover, they always sound happy; major keys. stunning turnarounds and a general sunshine that counteracts the undeniable emotion that was caught up in that gorgeous voice of his. Green’s flawless vocal tone and remarkable R&B blueprint remains one of the influential bookends of the Southern soul era, dwarfed only by Marvin Gaye who managed to avoid the problem of turning old and fat by being murdered by his own father. That’s not to say that Green, whose ex-girlfriend tried to burn him before shooting herself, didn’t have his fair share of tumult. But of his super-popular tunes, there’s only a few where the tone matches the lyrics perfectly. ‘Love and Happiness’ is far and away the best of the lot. It came out in 1972, four years before Green gave up sex for God. It’s as deep and destructive as gospel was ever going to get. If you haven’t heard it, you need to change where you get coffee in the morning.
It’s fitting that Green would end up in the Ministry, because he sounds like a priest. When he opens his mouth and starts to sing, it’s hard not to listen. ‘Love’ opens with a rare instance of Green not being flanked by his excellent band, with an extended ad-lib that brings to mind the kind of extended introductions Jeff Buckley would do in live performances some thirty years later. As he floats around the notes, the tension is palpable. Though you can’t hear them, you can sense the invisible band just itching to get started, but he takes his time. It’s those uneasy oscillations around the root before the final, relieving 4/4 stamp to bring them in, that sets up the tone here. And suddenly it’s all on; a descending chord progression that nearly drenches you in emotion, with organs sounding off to the left and trumpets blaring in on the right. There could easy be a small orchestra in that studio, but it’s recorded so perfectly that everything fits. By the time we’re into the verse and Green is complaining or celebrating the love in his life (I could never quite tell with him) the true genius of the writing starts to come out. The chords shift from major to minor, jump into other keys and flash back out before you even realise. It’s like the nuances of an actual lover’s tiff taking musical form.
This song actually sounds like it could be a hip-hop groove if you upped the bass and kicked in some extra drum pads. It’s nasty and tuneful at the same time; it chugs and snarls, and the snaking lead guitar, played by co-writer Mabon Hodges, adds this rocking blues element to it. While Green decides what it is he wants from love (“Make you come home early/Stay out all night long”), the band dutifully sticks to the script, adding in extra horn figures and sitting back on the fulcrum of bass and keys. It sounds as good as it makes you feel terrible. There’s a whole minute at the end there when Green just hangs out and muses on life while the horns sing, the backing vocal girls croon that dangerous sounding harmony. It’s so ambiguous, but so clear. Al Green really is the master. Just listen to those last three notes he holds as the track fades out. That’s all the religion any man will need in his life.
Al Green – ‘Love And Happiness’