- Photo by Eric Johnson
blackSUMMER'Snight is the second album in a trilogy by soul artist Maxwell. And it arrived more than seven years after the first album in the series, BLACKsummer'snight.
That's about par for the course for Maxwell who, over his 20-year recording career, has released five studio albums. Part of the reason Maxwell doesn't crank out albums every other year is he feels — in order to bring the proper amount of passion and understanding to his songs — he needs to live some life away from music.
"It's like, have I lived enough to be able to fully capitalize on the song creatively?" Maxwell said during a recent phone interview. "I look at someone like Mary J. Blige" — his co-headliner on his current tour — "as a very good example in terms of someone who has always made her life reflect the songs and the theme and [the way] she performs to people. And so that's how my approach is."
During the course of making blackSUMMER'Snight, Maxwell went through some significant losses, including the deaths of his grandmother and a cousin in his 30s. Those two losses informed some of the songs on the new album.
But perhaps the biggest life experience for the 43-year-old singer-songwriter, born as Gerald Maxwell Rivera, was reaching his 40th birthday.
"I feel, in turning 40, that was probably the biggest part of the delay," Maxwell said of the gap between albums. "I can tell you that just being 40 ... You really understand everything that you didn't understand before. You see what played into everything, what made you feel what you felt, why you were the way you were, why you viewed relationships the way you viewed them, how you idealized them and romanticized them, how you were pessimistic about them, why you were optimistic. All of those things came into play."
Both BLACKsummer'snight and blackSUMMER'Snight have thoughtfully explored love and relationships. That's no surprise for an artist who, with the arrival of his critically acclaimed 1996 debut album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, began creating some of the era's most sensual yet intelligent songs about love — and has no doubt provided a romance soundtrack for many of his fans.
His simmering, soulful and richly melodic music and his lyrics clearly struck a chord. Although it had a slow build commercially, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite established him as a force, eventually topping one million copies sold and helping to shape the neo-soul movement of the late '90s.
His next two albums, Embrya (1998) and Now (2001), also went platinum (with the latter release becoming Maxwell's first No. 1 album), solidifying his standing as one of modern soul's leading artists.
It took eight years after that, though, before Maxwell resurfaced with BLACKsummer'snight. But once again, the album was a major commercial and critical success, going platinum, spawning a chart-topping hit single in "Pretty Wings" and winning two Grammy awards.
Maxwell said even though it took years to bring his latest album to fruition, he went into blackSUMMER'Snight with some clear thematic ideas and a central musical goal for the album.
"My basic concern, alongside working with [producing and songwriting partners] Hod David and Stuart Matthewman, who have their own take and their own approach, is, you know, how different can we make things sound from the last thing?" Maxwell said. "Even though it's my voice and it's my writing and we do have a sensibility that of course is what it is, I always like to push forward sonically with the kinds of instruments that we use, with the kinds of ways that we approach it."
To that end, blackSUMMER'Snight finds Maxwell mixing things up just a bit musically. His core sound remains very much intact, but along with the expected rich ballads, a few songs ("All The Ways Love Can Feel," "The Fall" and "Hostage") bump up the tempos a little and groove a bit more.
Sonically, the music is more forward-looking, with modern synthetic touches mixed in with the familiar classic soul roots that have always shone brightly on Maxwell's albums. The result is an album that feels both modern and human.
Maxwell plans to continue keeping music as a central part of his life. And he's already talking about delivering the third album in the trilogy, blacksummer'sNIGHT, much sooner than the first two.
"I already have it pretty much done," he said of the next album. "We're really going to release that very soon. We're not going to release it in two months, you know what I mean, but it won't be a seven-year hiatus. I will not be 50 years old releasing NIGHT, just to let you know. We have a full-scale world tour happening that will be like a two-year thing. So in the process of touring and promoting SUMMER'S we will release NIGHT and then move on, because I have this whole other idea that I have cooking right now that I'm so excited about."