Track By Track: James Brown: Gravity
In the year 2000, I got my first paying job, and as I've mentioned before, I could now buy my own entertainment. I went crazy with eBay purchases in 2000, and ended up losing all the money in my bank account, but thankfully, I was able to get it back. One of the items I purchased in that first bloom of spending was today's subject of a Track By Track review. That album is Gravity by James Brown.
Technically, James Brown only did the singing on this album. The songs were written by the late Dan Hartman and the still-living Charlie Midnight, with one song written by Hartman, Midnight and Yazoo's Alison Moyet. I didn't think about that, though. To me, Brown's vocals and Hartman and Midnight's lyrics worked together quite well. I listened to this album a lot in my last year-and-a-half or so of high school. The music set my mind ablaze with all sorts of ideas for works that couldn't be understood in school or at home. Even though most of those ideas wouldn't pan out as I came to realize what my strengths and weaknesses were as a writer, I still enjoy listening to Gravity to this day.
As we go Track By Track on Gravity, we begin with the album's title song.
I really came to appreciate this song because most of my youth was spent in the 90s, and a lot of 90s music was just so bleak and depressing. From the alternative rock to the rap to the R&B, a lot of what was popular among the people in my age bracket just had a great sense of sadness to it. While the 90s were a very sad decade for me, I sought out music that was happier, or at least sounded that way. That's a big reason why I became an 80s pop culture fan in the late 90s and early 00s. Everything about the decade just seemed to have a vibrancy about it that I sought for my own life. Decades on, I now know that there was just as much to be sad about in the 80s as there was in the 90s, but I still hear a hopefulness in so much 80s work that I never heard in 90s work.
The title track to Gravity is an example of that hopefulness. The lyrics "If a man can dream, then he can defy G-R-A-V-I-T-Y" were an inspiration to me. I was getting beaten down emotionally at school and at home, and sometimes physically beaten at home as well. I didn't know if my dreams of becoming a writer were going to pan out. I didn't really feel as if I had anybody I could rely on. Somehow, though, whenever I heard the title track to Gravity, it was saying to me, "Don't give up yet. Better times are coming". They took a long time to get there, but they eventually did, and while I still have some things keeping limits on me, I now feel a lot more free than I did in the 90s and 00s.
Coming to the album's second track, we have Let's Get Personal.
This is the song where Yazoo's Alison Moyet shares a writing credit with the album's main writers, Hartman and Midnight. Moyet's distinctive voice also provides backgrounds and counterpoints to Brown's own unique voice. Yazoo's music reminded me a lot of James Brown's music, but in a synth-pop style. I could easily imagine that James Brown might have covered Yazoo's Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I). Replace the synths with Brown's bass section, and it would work, don't you think?
As to Let's Get Personal, this song is one of several on the album that addresses serious matters. In this case, the matter is working hard to clean things up. The cleaning in question sounds like it could be related to the planet, but perhaps it could also refer to fighting against corruption, with lyrics like, "Don't play me cheap 'cause I'm too deep". Either way, I think this song could've been used in environmentalism PSAs, and I'm surprised I haven't seen any on YouTube that have done so. I think it would be a good fit for that type of PSA.
Moving along to Gravity's third track, we have a change of pace with the song How Do You Stop?.
A ballad with tango influences, the lyrics are about how dangerous living a wild life can be, and how much it can impact you negatively. We've all led lives like that at one point or another. Even the most clean-cut of people have at least one dark secret or wild element to their life that would shock people if it ever got out. Whether you're able to limit it to just one time or whether it will be a recurring theme in your life is, in the end, all up to you.
Again, I think about my teens and 20s. I said all sorts of stupid, hurtful and hateful things in that time period, and I said some things I sincerely regret. Feelings of loneliness, anger and depression put me in some very bad places. It took a lot to stop it, and it wouldn't come to a more-or-less complete stop until I turned 30. As I always say, if it weren't for a therapist who understands autism spectrum disorders and a psychiatrist who got me on the right mix of medication, I might not have made it to where I am today. I was able to stop it, and now I approach life in a happier, kinder way.
Speaking of happier, we come to Gravity's fourth track, Turn Me Loose, I'm Dr. Feelgood.
This is Hartman and Midnight's homage to Brown's raveups of the 60s and 70s, the ones where he was encouraging his audiences to dance as the horns and the rhythm section were flying at warp speed while Brown performed his acrobatic dance moves. He had many nicknames in this time period, from The Godfather Of Soul to Soul Brother Number One to The Hardest Working Man In Show Business. I could easily imagine Dr. Feelgood being another of his many nicknames because that's what so much of his music did. It made you feel good.
Of course, by the time the 80s, the term Dr. Feelgood was more associated with Motley Crue than with James Brown. Although Motley Crue's song Dr. Feelgood is a blast of pop-rock power, it's also a rather unnerving song with lyrics about a drug dealer doing booming business. The term Dr. Feelgood, as related to drugs, dates back to the mid-20th century. I would like to think that Hartman and Midnight were appropriating the term to give it a more positive connotation, but I could be wrong about that. Either way, taking something bad and turning it into something good is at the crux of so many different forms of art, and so it is with this song. I could easily imagine a dance floor going berserk with bodies while this song plays even today. Maybe we'll get there again sooner than later.
Past the halfway point, we now come to Gravity's fifth track, Living In America, which, as many of you will recall, made its' debut in 1985's Rocky IV.
In Rocky IV, the song is used for Apollo Creed's (Carl Weathers) entrance as James Brown himself, flanked by showgirls and his band, performs the song. It's funny to watch Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Adrian (Talia Shire) react to the entrance, as well as see Ivan Drago's (Dolph Lundgren) puzzlement at what he's entering into. The over-the-top spectacle is fun, which makes the mood whiplash when Apollo dies at Drago's hands that much more powerful. To go from happy showmanship to a sad loss is a very intriguing concept.
As to the song itself, it's a song that makes me wonder about its' meaning. Is the song a genuine celebration of American pride, or is it a satire of jingoism? I can't say for sure, but I do know that when I performed this song at karaoke a few times, it always got a rousing response. I would even hold out the mic during the call-and-response section, and the bargoers would shout the city names back to me while I did so. Getting people to sing along was always a treat for me. Also, in James Brown's original, you can hear him say, "Eddie Murphy, eat your heart out!". It makes me wonder why Eddie didn't mention that when discussing celebrity reactions to his comedy in 1987's Eddie Murphy: Raw.
Going from a song celebrating America to a song criticizing it, we now come to Gravity's sixth track, Goliath.
The criticism of America in question is a criticism of the Greed Is Good mentality that many critics of the 80s assume everyone believed in during that decade. I've done enough research and enough interviews to know that a LOT of people in the 80s didn't want anything to do with the stereotypes so many associate with the decade. Not everybody in the 80s was money-hungry. Not everybody in the 80s was heartless and cruel. Of course, the criticisms of the 80s that started in the 90s and continue, albeit not as much, to this day seem to have poisoned people's images of the decade.
Songs like Goliath were criticizing the downsides of the 80s as the decade happens, and they were coming from a perspective of how they hoped that people would make their way out of the darkness and back into the light, however one might define that light. Some may feel that the light came when the 90s did. Others may feel as though the light will never come back. Whatever your feelings on the subject, the 80s was not as cut-and-dry as its' detractors, and even its' fans, claim it to be. There's all sorts of nuances and shades to the decade that the shorthand stereotypes you see in various nostalgia articles won't show you. Go really in-depth about the decade, and you'll see it's not as black-and-white as you might think.
Moving along to Gravity's seventh track, Repeat The Beat (Faith).
To me, this song is a continuation of the previous track, Goliath. In Goliath, the lyrics dealt with how greed was being personified as a giant that couldn't be stopped, or so you think. Repeat The Beat (Faith), at least to my ears, sounds like a way to defeat Goliath. The idea that a song could unite people to stand up to a dangerous idea may sound silly, but that conceit is something that does happen.
I find myself thinking of the scene in the classic drama Casablanca. Several Nazis in Rick's Bar are singing a German song, The Watch On The Rhine. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) orders the band to strike up the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. Though Victor is the only one singing at first, the entire bar eventually sings the song to drown out The Watch On The Rhine. Though the circumstances of the 80s were somewhat less severe than those of World War II, it was still a dangerous time, and whether it's a song like Repeat The Beat (Faith) or a concept in a movie like Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, the idea that art can change the world is a powerful and true one.
Finally, Gravity wraps up with its' eight track, Return To Me.
It's a ballad that describes how, even though a relationship has broken up, he hopes that things will start back up again. When a relationship of any kind breaks up, it's difficult to say how things will end up going. Perhaps you might reunite with your love someday, or maybe they might be out of your life forever. Perhaps a friend of many years will express disgust with you and block you on their social media, or maybe they'll change their mind and allow you the chance to get to know them again.
Hope springs eternal, and that's the lyrical concept I get out of this song. Of course, the questions is whether it's proper to have that hope. After all, you may think you need someone in your life, whether as a lover or a friend, but they may be manipulating or gaslighting you. In the end, you can only know what's in your own heart. It's difficult to guess where another person's head or heart may be. All you can do is be you.
In summation, Gravity is a personal favorite album of mine, and revisiting it has certainly provoked a lot of thoughts over two decades after I first heard it. What do you think of the album? How do you interpret the lyrics? Leave a comment below, and I'll speak to you all again soon.