Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak)
Numb yrself, ‘cos in pop-historical terms, the deaths are coming thick and fast: everyone keen to pay tribute where they can, attendant labels getting on with the random repackaging and remastering of the texts (witness Universal’s hapless slinging out of the forgettable Juicy Fruit alongside Black Moses here – ignore the former, get the latter and then move on to Hot Buttered Soul and To Be Continued). But fuck obituaries, the line of mourners, the showing your face, the piling up of learned comment into the dead-end of legacy. Words fail me when artists like Hayes die, not because of the lineage but ‘cos of the friendship, the intimacy lost.
The man christened ’Black Moses’by a bouncer, the man whose chain-clad performances seemed to be mystical, poetical and political acts of liberation and catharsis, was also a man who let you into his labyrinth, a man who had seemingly explored your own inner space, a sculptor and visionary of sound that prophesied everyone from Pete Rock and The Bomb Squad through to Dre and Dilla, a man who did for soul and R&B what Copernicus and Galileo did for the cosmos, what De Gama and Polo did for the known world. As wracked, ravished listener, your relationship with the man is as fellow explorer of his genius, riding shotgun on his mission into his own maelstrom. On Black Moses, the break-up album he wrote while his marriage was disintegrating in 1971, Hayes inhabits you with sound, gets into your pulse, tunes your heartrate to his heartache. Opening up the sacrosanct – Bacharach’s holiest hits – knowing that the sky is no limit but the ribcage is, Hayes unfolds his soul slowly over the 14 tracks here, slips you the direct and the diffuse, the journey sometimes too gorgeous to bear (the opening duo of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ and ‘Close To You’ are less songs to hear than planets whose orbits you fall into). The band is way too funky to ignore, the playing and arrangement hitting stellar space and liquid wonder too often for this to be accident; the cumulative detonation for the senses drains both singer and listener into a contemplative afterglow always a step away from despair. Hayes on the mic, sobbing, holding it together, sinking into the molten insolubility of loneliness – the lines you know and the melodies you thought your heart was tired of are opened up surgically, reconfigured and imagined fresh, dread and torment smeared across the oceanic vistas that reveal themselves.
Hayes makes you listen to these standards again, find their uneasy heart again, takes the solid foundations of the Stax sound and makes every second count in a new way, in a suggestive and at times ethereal arrangement of Memphis grit that gives every close-up of himself a deep-focus depth, a steadicam’s sure eye. It puts you in an entirely new place as a listener. You’re not merely a dazzled spectator, let alone there to admire the craft – you’re there with him, and, after a while, you realise you’ve become a presence within the space of these songs, free to wander the reanimated edens of life and decay conjured therein. Unsurprising, then, that when this whirlpool first hit the racks the mainstream rock press derided it as black muzak, easy-listening soul, castigated it for its over-slickness, fearful of Stax busting out of the shackles of its tinshack past and daring to dream up such cavernous basilicas to the self and the lover. But ‘muzak’ implies your ability to turn off, to coast, to forget what you’re hearing. Hayes offers you no such relief, and Black Moses, as sonic vision, as lover’s testament, as spiralling self-pilgrimage, is still a visitation from heaven and hell.
Bless your brokenness, because here be redemption. Be touched again.
Neil Kulkarni (Plan B Mag, 2009)