By Sam Bleazard
She certainly never went away, so we can’t describe Mary J. Blige’s new release as a comeback, but it’s clear from the outset that some fresh energy was blowing through this recording process. The London Sessions is pretty much as it says on the tin, with Mary basing herself in the capital for the entirety of these sessions. Rumour has it she also developed a penchant for fish and chips.
The album kicks off with Therapy, which is like old school testimony, modern production values but gospel at its heart. The follow up track on the set is classic confessional from New York’s queen of hip-hop soul, and while it may be titled Doubt, there’s a very real confidence in the delivery. Sung to a fairly bare piano line and occasional backing vocals, compared with some of the songs on the album this morphs into big ballad territory with strings and other flourishes you’d expect from a major label release.
The track F for You which appeared earlier in the year, recorded with the precocious techno wizards Disclosure, suggested a cutting edge was about to be released upon us, so you may purchase this set waiting to hear more alternative tracks kick in. Occasionally it moves into more danceable territory on tracks like My Loving, which sounds like a genuine noughties release. While Pick Me Up sounds like something MJ Cole might have recorded, and there’s even a nod to Sly Stone’s Dance to the Music horn refrain, and a “shamone” which is surely a tribute to Michael Jackson. On Not Loving You we hear one of the purest vocal and piano deliveries that Blige has committed to tape – but who’s she singing to? It’s intriguing and while it may not be radical, it is a classic sound and certainly the kind of thing that’s been missing on recent releases, such as a syrupy Christmas CD put out this time last year.
When You’re Gone starts with echo-ing acoustic guitar lines and is again stripped right back, this time it’s a heartfelt appeal to a lover, and a best friend, to return. It’s refreshing to hear production values pared back to showcase her voice, as this is a vocalist who’s touched a generation. If there’s one question that lingers, it’s whether the material is strong enough to carry the commitment to the kind of raw delivery fans of the artist have always craved. In part it is, and this is definitely one of her strongest releases in recent years, but it may also be something of a missed opportunity to make an even more powerful artistic statement. It’s clear Blige was a fan of Amy Winehouse (recently visiting her father Mitch), and feels that the London scene – which includes Sam Smith, she’s a fan – is capturing emotions and expression that the bigger studios are unable to currently. A part of me was hoping to hear the influence of youth, of another scene, helping create something slightly edgier and experimental that would have thrown down yet another gauntlet to Beyonce, Rihanna, Rita Ora et al. The collaborations and London immersion could have led to yet another wave of heartfelt RnB to breathe some classier, fresher energy into the genre. Follow hints at this and picks up where F for You left off, and we almost move into something more trance-like. But like one of her fellow collaborators George Michael (and also Madonna on many occasions) there’s an attempt to distil something slightly underground or dance-floor driven and package it up for a larger audience.
We often ask too much of genius of course, and tracks such as Whole Damn Year are blues for a new millennium. And no-one expresses pain like Mary when she commits it to tape.The album oscillates between great ballads and occasional forays into more house influence dance music, which often feels like it’s on the verge of cutting loose but never quite reaches the ecstatic heights you expect it to. We’re in a very pleasurable fourth gear, when fifth or sixth always seem a distinct possibility! She’s the artist of a generation, and her status will now never be in doubt…and while this is a better album than numerous artists in her field will release this year, or indeed could ever release, you might reflect on listening to it that it could have been even more. In terms of Mary J. Blige’s boundaries, she deserves our ears just for trying to push herself once more, as it’s pretty much always in the interests of making soul music relevant to more distracted and cynical times.Truly innovative it may not be, but inspirational Mary J. Blige continues to be, and at this stage of the game that’s quite an achievement.