Edwin Starr: Involved (Big Break Records)

edwin starr

Motown, in spite of its plethora of hits, was never especially known as an albums label. Their specialty was the golden 45, to be sure, and albums always felt superfluous, especially in the 1960s. Marvin Gaye, always one of the label’s key innovators, would change this in 1971 with his breakthrough What’s Going On. Even then, the artists who produced memorable albums remains especially small—Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Temptations, and Rick James being among a select few who released definitive, classic, cohesive albums for Motown.

Edwin Starr was one of the legion of singles artists, releasing a seemingly endless number throughout his tenure. His 1970 hit, “War,” made him a national name. Soul music was growing in popularity, as American society began the process of desegregation, and Starr’s contribution was a glowing example of anti-Vietnam protest. It’s a scorching, passionate number that still burns with intensity—and relevance—four decades on. Watch any film or documentary about Vietnam, the Sixties, the Hippie movement, or anti-war protests, and you are sure to hear “War” used in them; it was and is a ubiquitous number for and about troubling times.

Starr’s fifth album, Involved, could have been the formulaic Motown companion to current singles, but with Gaye suddenly redefining the format for the label, Starr took it upon himself to insist that this album, Involved, be anything but. Involved would actually mark the second appearance of “War;” Starr’s previous album, War & Peace, had been a typical collection of single sides and album filler. Involved would be a tight statement about peace, Vietnam, and the wave of social changes that would engulf the decade. What makes Involved different, however, is the involvement of Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who wrote a majority of the numbers here, produced the sessions and helped to mold the album into a cohesive, sharp political and social statement.

In just eight songs, Involved captures the mood of the era. Vietnam looms large on the aforementioned “War,” and its follow-up, “Stop The War Now,” an equally potent punch of message and melody that delights as it edifies. A celebration of Soul music is issued in “Funky Music (Sho’ Nuff Turns Me On)’” a call to action is launched with “Stand,”  while social problems are tackled with “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion,” both of which had been hits for label-mates The Temptations. His take on “Ball of Confusion,” however, is a trippy twelve-minute psychedelic jam that takes it higher than the Temptations ever did. Closing the album is a benediction of hope in the form of a cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” With a slowed down tempo, and stripped of the bombast that made the original so thrilling, this mellow version settles the waters Starr might have stirred up by saying things will be all right in the end.

One might think that adding thirteen bonus tracks (culled from his numerous contemporary singles) to a conceptual album like Involved might seem to lessen the album’s impact. Amazingly, these songs do more to accent and define Starr as a singer with his finger on the pulse of what was going on outside the studio. Though not as thematically strong as Involved, these tracks cover social ills, like “Ain’t It Hell Up In Harlem,” “Who’s Right Or Wrong,” and “Who Is The Leader Of The People.” The ace of these tracks, however, belongs to “Love (The Lonely Lord’s Prayer),” a love song that seeks out the solace of God to help the lonely man find someone to be by his side.

It might be easy to assume that an album containing covers of the label’s recent hits plus a rehash of a hit single might not make a great, original statement, or that it was Motown simply trying to cash in on previous successes. Considering their track record, such assumptions might be based for good reason. That would be an error in judgment, though, as Involved is a masterfully produced and and conceptualized album that definitely belongs next to What’s Going On. Involved is one of Soul’s best concept albums, one wrongfully neglected for the past four decades, but righted with this reissue.

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