Lee Fields & the Expressions
(Truth and Soul; 2009)
By Chris Molnar | 1 July 2009
For those new to Lee Fields, approaching My World as an introduction to his decades’ worth of music, be assured: the man is no retro-soul clone or fetishist. He’s been great at this stuff since the ’60s—hell, even his “comeback” (in 1992, following a hiatus in the ’80s) is almost twenty years old by this point. On My World, arguably his best record yet, he drops the easy-enough funk of his earlier work and lets his incredibly tight backing band the Expressions breathe through some melancholy soul. Thanks to this, even on the cuts where after-hours atmosphere is more prominent than any real tune, the bone-chilling thing is how he’s neither reaching forward for some hot new sound nor trying to crate-dig what was so good about his heyday or anybody else’s. He’s a self-contained bastard and this is just what he does, better than anybody.
The mid-tempo My World does this modus operandi more justice than much of his funkier back catalog (one that stretches, naturally, back into the Pangaeaic Seventies) because
being a hard-working, grindstone nose-ing survivor is what love is about, not the quick-fuck of dance music. Dancing is for the Icarusi disregarding reality to give everyone a constant high. Fields, instead, is in his element repeating over and over that “love, love, love, baby / comes and goes” with a supportive, sad-sack chorus, quivery strings, and emphatic guitar stabs, all over a rhythm section that doesn’t know when to mellow and quit. “Money i$ King” repeats the same formula with a less sexy topic, but he dips further into lounging soul-baiting on “My World Is Empty Without You,” all bells and bongos and strings—those strings, perfectly pitched between the bombastic golden era of Motown and the repetitious Dre’d-up samples everybody knows but everyone makes do with.
That song manages to sustain a kind of suspended tension the whole time, going nowhere until the maracas suddenly morph into some kind of climax. Is it earned? Riveted all the same, the best moments on My World manage to turn this everyday-grind dream-deferment into a kind of transcendence all its own, and the worst are just pleasant throwbacks, like the Booker T album cut mindset of instrumentals “Expressions Theme” and “Last Ride.” Of the vocal tracks, the lovelorn’d work harder than the “What’s Going On”-aping social justice paeans. But when they connect it’s the kind of rapture that sticks, clings, makes ways of life you hide from your friends. Album standout “Ladies” manages to turn girl watching into a completely self-hating religion, with Fields as its benevolent prophet, tossing off simple sounding koans with the kind of total confidence and humility that only a long life with long, harrowing confidence and humility could offer.
Ultimately, that’s the thing that hits hardest about My World as a whole: even when the songs aren’t necessarily Holland/Dozier/Holland compositions, it’s as if he’s speaking the eerie fucking language that he is carrying an entire genre on his back, that you’re encountering the last philanthropist of an ancient charity, that no matter what he’s saying you ignore him at your own peril. For the sake of history and biodiversity, let’s not mention to our heritage that a guy like Fields, already here and now, deserves to be brought back.