Sunday, December 3, 2023

Maxwell: “blackSUMMER’Snight” in Toledo

“blackSUMMER’Snight,” the second album in a trilogy by soul artist Maxwell, has arrived a mere 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 or so 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 and have experiences from which to draw on in writing his lyrics and delivering his words.

“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 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 of significant life experiences, including the deaths of his grandmother and a cousin in his 30s, who fell victim to a heart ailment – two losses he has said informed some of the songs on the latest album.

But perhaps the biggest life experience for the 43-year-old singer/songwriter born as Gerald Maxwell Rivera was reaching the milestone 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 start to get such a, 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 and their many complexities. 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 soundtrack for romance 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 in urban music, 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), while 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.

“blackSUMMER’Snight” is off to a solid start, having debuted at No. 3 on the “Billboard 200” album chart and Maxwell won a Grammy in February for Best R&B song for “Lake By The Ocean.”

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 a bit more forward looking, with modern synthetic touches mixed in with the familiar classic soul roots that have always shown brightly on Maxwell’s albums. The result is an album that feels both modern and human.

Thematically, Maxwell is still dealing mainly with love on “blackSUMMER’Snight” – and doing it with considerable insight and complexity. The Grammy-winning lead single, “Lake By the Ocean,” is a good example of Maxwell’s mature perspective on love, as he paints a scene where he arrives at a moment of clarity about love and sees a future with one special person as a real possibility.

Such a relationship, though, hasn’t happened for Maxwell yet, but he would like that to change.

“I see myself getting married eventually,” Maxwell said. “I think now that I have an understanding about what being in a relationship means, when you take into consideration I’m a guy who’s been making music and I’m an artist and that’s the most selfish occupation you can have, how do you maintain a relationship? I never wanted to get married and get divorced. I didn’t want that. I know there’s no way of predicting whether that will happen or not, but I was very sensitive in light of all of the people I’ve been around who have gone through it and to take note of what makes it happen and why that does happen.”

Married or not, 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 it took to complete and release the first two albums in the series.

“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.”

As Maxwell noted, at the moment he’s focused on the middle stages of his tour behind “blackSUMMER’Snight.” The shows seeks to encompass Maxwell’s entire career.

“It’s exciting. We take you back in time. We put you in the future,” he said of his live show. “It’s a fun show. It’s loose, it’s improvisational. I work with the city I’m in. I try to tie in certain aspects of where I’m at within the show.

“We try to do that, for sure,” he said.

Maxwell will play at the Huntington Center on
Thursday, June 15 at 8pm. $45+.

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