Marvin Gaye‘s I Want You is a supreme slice of mid 70s soul. Taking its feel from one of its creator’s finest moments, you could be forgiven for assuming that What’s Going On‘s Mercy Mercy Me had slinked its way off the grooves of its parent album three years earlier, floated patiently in the ether while Marvin busied himself with rustling up another masterpiece, then alighted on the wax, a groove with no peaks or troughs and no real verses or choruses, but a slow and steady earworm of a track.
It’s heavy on Blaxploitation-era vibes – congas, elongated sweeping strings, tingaling percussion, parping brass, stinging guitar – and home to one of the singer’s greatest-ever vocal performances. What’s Going On (the album and its title track) – and to a lesser extent the follow-up Let’s Get It On – take some beating, and I Want You (the album and its title track) have been unfairly marginalised on the sidelines as a result. Indeed, you could make a decent claim for I Want You being the perfect third in a luscious, exquisite trilogy of soul. But that’s for some other writer who’s better qualified than I.
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
Marvin’s vocal on I Want You‘s title track is terrific. Double, triple, quadruple-tracked in places, he sings to himself, with himself and above and beyond himself. It’s there in the way he pre-empts the string motif at the start, it’s there in the high falsettoed call and response sections throughout and it’s most certainly there in the suggestive come hither moan that is emitted from somewhere below his belt line. Listen to the track 3/4/5/half a dozen times and I guarantee you’ll spot something you missed the last time around. It’s an astonishing performance.
Carried by a melody gifted from the Gods of Song, Marvin recasts himself as Nat King Cole for the right-on generation, a caramel-smooth crooner with perfect pitch and enunciation, the voice floating above and between his crack band of Motown sessioneers. When you want some of that badass, sidewalk struttin’ guitar on your record, who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jnr, of course.
You’d have to assume that Marvin had no bother when it came to the ladies. (Exhibit A, above, m’lud). Let’s Get It On was his previous call to arms, I Want You the next. I want you, he says, more a statement of fact than as a yearning for a partner that’s unattainable. No-one was ever out of Marvin Gaye’s league, right?, so when the Big M states that he wants you, he’s letting you know – out of gentlemanly manners – that tonight, you’re the chosen one.
Madonna though. You’d have to assume that she has no bother in this department either. If she wants you, she’ll most likely get you, yet she tackles I Want You with all the uncertainty of a lovestruck teenager at the back of chemistry who wastes her day away drawing hearts around the name of the school stud that common consensus makes clear she has no chance with.
Madonna/Massive Attack – I Want You
Slow and steady, powered by signature dark beats and a static crackle of tension, Madonna’s six and a half minute take on I Want You is the best approximation of being painfully, agonisingly in love with someone you’ll never be with that you’re ever likely to hear. Its treacle-thick ambience – stop-the-world, wooly and insular – captures perfectly that feeling of being lost in a place that you and only you understands. It’s an engrossing listen, the vocal drawn-out almost to the point of desperation. Madonna. Desperate. Let that sink in. It might be a cover version, but as far as great Madonna tracks go, I Want You is fantastic.
Much of the reverence should be reserved for Massive Attack’s sophisto instrumentation and Nellee Hooper’s on-the-nose production. They get Madonna to do the Marvin thing of singing the string line before it comes in. They get her, like Marvin, to sing to herself, with herself and above and beyond herself; a whisper here, a straight ahead measured vocal there, an immersive performance throughout. They even go for the tingaling percussion, synthetic rather than pitched and last heard on their own Unfinished Sympathy, and the strings too have seemingly slid straight off of that particular cracker and kept up the good work on the Marvin cover.
Slo-mo and cinematic, the Madonna/Massive Attack take on I Want You is sublime.