African drums. That’s the explanation given by Mr. T, the ever-cool hero in the 1972 film Trouble Man, when asked by an incredulous police detective how word of T’s arrest had hit the street so fast. While it’s the figurative rhythms of urban streets to which T and his blaxploitation brethren keep beat–allowing them to operate two steps ahead of and just outside the establishment–it’s the literal rhythms of the funk-fueled soundtracks that weighted the films of the genre with an emotional and cultural complexity largely missing from formulaic scripts. In the same year that Curtis Mayfield was boldly and brilliantly pulling back the curtain on the street game, highlighting the danger behind the glamor on his much heralded Superfly soundtrack album, Marvin Gaye was using Trouble Man to illuminate the pain behind the cool. Mayfield’s opus, equal parts visceral cautionary tale and blistering social screed, seemed out to change the world. Marvin’s meditation, driven by internal tension and aborted catharses feels disarmingly intimate by comparison, and its ultimate effect is to touch the soul.
The blues-based, jazz-seasoned title track stands as one of Gaye’s most taut singles, with moody keys and the singer’s aching falsetto belying the ice cold bravado of the lyric, “I came up hard babe, but now I’m cool” (to the extent that they’re often quoted as “I come apart”). Gaye’s vocals become increasingly frantic as the bridge crescendos, and then slip back into a swaggering defiance for the swinging chorus. It’s one of Gaye’s most emotionally layered vocal performances and–startlingly–the album’s only full vocal track. The rest of the soundtrack uses nuanced and at times contradictory instrumentation to expand upon the themes laid out in the title track.
The album’s often dynamic drumming conveys the exterior – the bobbing walks, the easy head nods and handshakes of the characters that populate the film’s urban streets. “”T’ Plays it Cool” bristles with a loose, yet precise rhythm that captures the vibrance of city life. Yet, as the keys creep in, courtesy of Gaye’s work behind a then-futuristic-sounding Moog synthesizer, an underlying tension starts to build. When Trevor Lawrence’s plaintive saxophone enters the mix, a somber undercurrent threatens to expose the easy rhythm for the facade that it is. Indeed, as the album plays out, the assured percussion takes more and more of a back seat to the less controlled, more emotive instruments. Horns, particularly Lawrence’s sax (in many ways the albums vocalist) generally convey internal uncertainty, as on the eery “Life Is a Gamble,” while keys highlight external danger, best exemplified on the foreboding “Deep In It.” Both elements converge seamlessly on “Don’t Mess with Mr. ‘T’.” Though the title suggests a threat, the combination of desperation and tenderness orchestrated by Gaye make the song play out as a desperate plea.
For this 40th anniversary release, Trouble Man is given the true deluxe treatment. Not only are alternate takes of soundtrack cuts unearthed, complete with extended grooves (“’T’ Plays it Cool [Unedited Version]”) and additional vocal accompaniment (“’T’ Stands for Trouble [Alternate Version]”), but for the first time ever, Gaye’s score from the film’s theatrical release has been reconstructed via a painstaking process detailed in the collection’s extensive liner notes. Where the soundtrack album reflects the film’s interior life, the score drives the action, moving nimbly from the communal warmth of “Pool Hall” to the heart pounding menace of “Stick Up,” and slow building adrenaline of “Car Ride/Looking For Pete.”
Perhaps the score’s greatest gem is the rendering of the title track used over the film’s opening credits. The track spotlights a smokey baritone vocal from Gaye atop his angelic falsetto, the the vocals at once competing and harmonizing. It’s a spellbinding four minutes that perfectly captures the duality at the heart of Trouble Man and, more broadly, Gaye himself. By showing the full breadth of his work on the film, and pulling back the curtain on his meticulous creative process, this expanded edition illustrates that Trouble Man deserves a place alongside not only the more heralded soundtrack offerings from Gaye’s contemporaries and his own more revered ‘70s classics, but on the shelf of any music or cinema enthusiast.
- Jeff Harvey