I Can't Stop is probably Al Green's best secular soul record since 1977's The Belle Album, though it's nowhere near as idiosyncratic as that self-produced masterpiece. Instead, I Can't Stop is an attempt to recapture the magic of Green and producer Willie Mitchell's string of '70s collaborations. And though such a feat may seem impossible nearly 30 years after the pair last teamed up for a non-gospel album,1976's Have a Good Time, Green and Mitchell succeed fairly well.
Recorded this spring at Mitchell's Royal Studio, I Can't Stop reunites not only Mitchell and Green but the same space and many of the same backing musicians (most crucially guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges) as on those classic discs. They even dusted off Green's old microphone.
Musically, I Can't Stop taps into that Hi Records sound as well as could possibly be expected. Most of the old elements are here: Chalmers-Rhodes-Chalmers backing vocals, sharp horn blasts, satin sheets of strings, wistful guitar lines, and that unmistakable silken groove. And while Green may not be as overpowering a vocalist as he was in 1973, he remains one of the finest --and most distinctive --singers on the planet. His trademark lexicon of vocal mannerisms is on full display here --the moans, purrs, growls, whispers, seemingly spontaneous asides, fluttery falsetto swoops, and piercing high-register siren calls all make appearances on I Can't Stop.
The title track opens the record with that vintage Hi sound, which Green rides like old times before unleashing a series of vocal flourishes on the fadeout. And that's far from the only moment on I Can't Stop that feels vintage: "You" and "Million to One" might have been unearthed from one of those classic '70s sessions, while the vocal care of "Not Tonight" and the slow-burn of "Rainin' in My Heart" are also standouts.
Some tracks --the jaunty, almost more Stax-like funk of "I've Been Waiting on You" and the carnivalesque closer "Too Many" --vary from the formula in welcome and surprising ways. Other tracks --"Play To Win" and "My Problem Is You" -- feel a little too much like generic contemporary blues, a common musical crutch for aging soul singers in a post-hip-hop world but one that Green is simply too unique for.
I Can't Stop is a relief for what it is but is refreshing for what it isn't. Given the recent history of legends-making-a-comeback records, there are many predictable high-concept paths Green could have taken. I Can't Stop could have been an all-star singer-songwriter exercise Ö la Solomon Burke's predictably overpraised Don't Give Up on Me (aka R&B for NPR Addicts). It could have also made a desperate bid to market itself to a newer, younger audience, Ö la Johnny Cash's "American" recordings. Or it could have been an all-star duets album, where there are far too many offenders to mention. I Can't Stop is a record seemingly unaware of trends and is all the better for it. It reflects the spare, lost-in-time quality of its production, which is itself a little high-concept.
Of course, there are some gimmicks that might have been interesting. Green is such a supernatural cover artist -- maybe the most compelling and audacious interpretive singer in pop history --that it's actually sort of a disappointment that all the songs on I Can't Stop are Green originals, especially when so many lyrics veer toward cliched pop readymades. ("Rainin' in My Heart," "Play To Win," etc.) I mean, really, who wouldn't want to hear Green hunker down with Mitchell and reinvent a few oddball titles? ("Oops, I Did It Again?" C'mon, who doesn't want to hear that?)
Ultimately, I Can't Stop is no match for Let's Stay Together or Livin' for You, much less such classics as Call Me or I'm Still in Love With You. But after initial doubts, I'm starting to think that it holds up pretty well next to second-tier Green-Mitchell collabs such as Have a Good Time or Al Green Explores Your Mind, which were also, of course, pretty good records. And that alone makes I Can't Stop both a triumphant return and one of the best R&B records of the year.