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When Al Green left secular music behind in the late '70s to focus his energies on creating the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, he was still a major star. Abandoning a successful career while at the peak of his creative powers, Green created his own particular myth. He was the R&B equivalent of Jim Brown or Sandy Koufax, going out with plenty of fuel left in his tank.

For that reason, Green's latest release, I Can't Stop, is automatically intriguing. For the first time since 1976, Green and his old producer Willie Mitchell have collaborated on a secular album, and they have made a point of resurrecting many of the old elements: Mitchell's legendary Royal Studios, the Royal Horns, and a band lineup that includes the underrated brilliance of guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges.


I Can't Stop
Al Green
(Blue Note)
At 57, Green's voice remains miraculous enough to make Full Gospel converts of the deepest skeptics, and he has lost little of the irrepressible warmth found on his string of '70s classics. What is missing, though, is the left-field quirkiness that made those records so distinctive even at a time when soul music dominated the airwaves: the traces of Indian modality in "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," the spiritual ambiguity of "Take Me to the River," the exotic chord changes and the deep grooves of Mitchell's double-drum setups.

I Can't Stop finds Green content and engaging, but not pushing himself as a songwriter. Tracks like the title song and "Million to One" would be fairly generic old-skool soul thumpers if they didn't have Green's voice on top. And the few songwriting surprises are mildly unsettling, particularly the way "I'd Write a Letter" sounds like a dead ringer for Blood Sweat and Tears' "Spinning Wheel." Only on the aching ballads "Not Tonight" and "Rainin' in My Heart" does Green approach the emotional power of his best work. But even when he is on cruise control, Green never lets you forget that he's the last of the great soul men. •

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