Maxwell — “Pretty Wings”

Release date: 4.28.09

Peak: #33

All my old complaints hold true. Maxwell’s singing still not only verges on the bodiless, but aches toward it, as though winnowing away all carnal presence to achieve the Platonic form of desire. His ornate vocal curlicues suggest an ideal of soul composed solely of fingertip caresses and candlelight flicker and bubble bath residue. It’s all too much for an Otis Redding fan to take.

The hyperbolic responses to BLACKsummers’night, ranging from Jody Rosen’s snide “an R&B album about love, not just sex, for grown-ups who know the difference” to David Drake’s smitten “only someone as passionate about music as they are the human heart could so successfully produce work that reflects well on both,” failed to fully correspond to my experience of sex, love, hearts, and music. And yet, with the romantic essence of R&B having largely degenerated to a 2D porntasia of robots macking on strippers, my reservations about Maxwell felt less pressing by 2009. In fact, his sensual self-absorption rendered “Pretty Wings,” a breakup song arranged for wind chimes and handclap, suitable as a makeout soundtrack if you overlook (underhear?) the words.

Lyrically, “Pretty Wings” has its moments — “One day you won’t remember me” is a pretty cold line. Yet overall, Maxwell never clarifies who’s at fault. It’d be too charitable of fans to interpret the lyrics as ambiguous; it’d be too uncharitable of me to suggest that they lack coherence. Let’s split the diff and call them “evasive.” The snazzy horns recall “Adore,” and Maxwell even works up to a show of gruffness toward the close (“climax” would be pushing it). True, that vocal shift is a purely formal aesthetic decision—dude know his arrangement requires a contrast in tone — and what Prince recognizes as the icing on top Maxwell serves up as a full course meal. But if the arty slow jam betrays a tendency to preciousness in its creator, it also suggests an attention to detail. And that’s hardly a bad trait bring to bed with you.

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