One of the greatest albums of all time, and nothing short of a masterpiece.
David Katz 2011
Easily one of the greatest albums of all time, What’s Going On is nothing short of a masterpiece. Like Bob Marley’s Exodus, it mixes gritty social commentary and anguished dissatisfaction with expressions of religious devotion; indeed, the singer once stated that the album had been written by God, with Gaye merely the vehicle selected to deliver its messages. And like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, its non-standard musical arrangements, which heralded a new sound at the time, gives it a chilling edge that ultimately underscores its gravity, with subtle orchestral enhancements offset by percolating congas, expertly layered above James Jamerson’s bubbling bass. For a singer that had built his career on pop records written by others, What’s Going On was a very bold departure, and considering that Motown boss Berry Gordy was flatly against issuing it, Gaye’s determination in seeing the project to fruition is certainly something to be celebrated.
Ten years ago, for the 30th anniversary reissue, Universal unearthed the album’s alternate early mix, done in Detroit, shortly before Marvin and Motown shifted camp to Los Angeles; this less-cluttered mix is highly instructive, allowing listeners to hear the disc from a new vantage point. The 30th set also had a live bonus set, taken from a 1972 performance; but this time around, the collected bonus tracks include original mono mixes of the album’s 45 RPM single releases, plus some unreleased outtakes from the LP, as well as an entire second CD of funk jams Marvin cut with Hamilton Bohannon’s band. Much of this material has never been released before. This time around, the Detroit mix of the album has been relegated to vinyl only (good news for those who prefer that format to compact disc), while the accompanying LP-sized booklet has brief essays by biographers David Ritz and Ben Edmonds, giving a bit of context to the proceedings.
In any form, What’s Going On is an album that everyone should have in their collection; no matter how many times you play it, there is always something else to discover, from the post-Vietnam psychosis of What’s Happening Brother to the pusher’s ode of Flyin’ High; from the terror of Mercy Mercy Me to the hopefulness of Right On and the righteous indignation of Inner City Blues. If you’ve already got both mixes of What’s Going On, the funk jams make this release a welcome package; if you haven’t heard the album for a while, or never got your hands on the Detroit mix, this 40th anniversary edition is a must-have.