Sound Check

Conceptually, the idea of the box set has been honed to something resembling a science: These massive collections are supposed to be archivists' wishes come true. Anthology is more of a Green lover's daydream. The raw material is the stuff of genius -- but here it has been collected uninterestingly. For example, because the schism in Green's life between being a secular singer and a religious one seems so complete, it's probably easy to break his career into R&B and gospel divisions, as is done on Anthology. But Green's recorded output wasn't nearly so neat: "Jesus Is Waiting," one of the most divine songs he ever recorded, is on the early and secular Call Me album and is an eye-popping departure in the midst of the pop yearning that surrounds it.

Though Anthology provides a brief audio clip from the documentary Gospel According to Al Green, it doesn't really get into what it meant when Green turned his back on the pop world. Rarely has a performer left audiences as hurt as Green did when he decided to walk away from secular music; people are still blinking confusedly about that move almost 20 years later. With very few exceptions -- his duet with Lyle Lovett on "Funny How Time Slips Away," which Green originally covered long before he converted to gospel (surprisingly, neither version is included on Anthology) -- he has held to his convictions. As an anthology, Anthology doesn't set a context for its subject, something the liner notes are left to explain.

Perhaps that's nitpicking, because this collection is a tribute to the casual power of Al Green, whose potency, with the sharpest of gospel-tinged undercurrent, brought a new, spare poshness to R&B. The youngsters may try to rock it old-world, but the clear-headed efficiency of Al Jackson's snare and the light-fingered charm of Teenie Hodges's guitar work created a first -- R&B minimalism -- around which Green fashioned his magic. Listening to it collected on Anthology doesn't rob Green of his explosiveness; it's as if he had an angel inside him, and it's more than he can contain -- especially on "Jesus Is Waiting," which is so perfect it can make you weep. (****)

There was probably something other than an angel inside Gaye -- though he had one of those too -- and Green and Gaye complemented each other because of the ease and urgency they could conjure simultaneously. Their next-generation imitators, likable as they are, still have a way to go before their different sides can jell into such a complete whole.

-- Elvis Mitchell

***** Heaven
**** Knocking on heaven's door
*** Mortal coil
** Purgatory
* Hell

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