With a rising political climate that started to escalate at the time of its writing and recording, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye is a record filled with uneasy tension disguised by fascinating production and active lyricism. As war raged on and continued to light fuel for artists in America, Gaye took the opportunity to explain a personal relationship through his brother Frankie Gaye.
As the celebrations and questions of “What’s happening brother!” ring faintly throughout the first track “What’s Going On”, Gaye is quick to showcase a daunting tone rather than a cheerful one. He explains, “Mother, Mother, there’s too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying… You see, war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate.” His vocal approach is not met with smoking barrels but instead peaceful grasps as he is incredibly calm while describing the true ugliness that the Vietnam War caused in American homes.
With a global view, Gaye moves through the crowd and lands on the track “Save The Children” which is a defeated gaze into the void of immense loss. He explains, “Who’s willing to try and save a world that’s destined to die? When I look at the world it fills me with sorrow, little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow.” It pulls this curtain back on the African-American expressionism and taps directly into a public view for a time in America that continued to burn under the name of the flag. The way that he incorporates horns and these bursts of vitality into such a progressive message continues to illustrate how What’s Going On became such an influential and recognizable record even almost 50 years later.
Gaye makes these calls of mercy through the microphone and performs under extreme scrutiny to form bridges between each piece. The transitions are flowing and seem without any blatant transition that cuts from track to track. What’s Going On sees a movement from “God Is Love” to “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” that perfectly segues the end of side one on vinyl that leaves the listener with this soulful and passionate display on the horns and bells. The choir styled in the background is perfect sampling material with their dramatic fluctuation before coming to a final silence on the track.
The last moments of What’s Going On opt for this gently rising action of jungle-esque percussion and these calm, but moving hums from Gaye as each piece is layered through bricks and walls of sound. It is true that “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is a desolate track that determines less of a hopeful future and instead focuses on the bleak injustices within the community that Gaye saw. It was not simply just a problem in the United States but ultimately showed a shockwave across the planet through What’s Going On.
Just as things change with time, they also stay the same and Marvin Gaye’s message is still relevant today. With a bigger push into the unforeseeable future, one of the prophets of truth saw an untimely demise that left the world just as toppled as when What’s Going On hit the streets.
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