In 2009, Maxwell made a triumphant and long-awaited return to music with BLACKsummers’night, his first album in 8 years. The melancholic lead single “Pretty Wings” soared, proving that Maxwell just gets better with time. To the delight of fans, he announced that BLACKsummers’night was the first installment in a trilogy of albums. Today, that trilogy still remains incomplete, but 7 years after the first installment was released, Maxwell released the understated second installment blackSUMMERS’night, in 2016. The album’s arrival coincided with the 20 years anniversary of his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite depicted a young Maxwell getting his musical footing while unknowingly helping to pioneer and mainstream the sound of neo-soul. 20 years later on blackSUMMERS’night he was still pioneering, with a refined sound. While Maxwell’s debut oozed with elements funk, progressive jazz/smooth jazz, and remains a hallmark of neo-soul, blackSUMMERS’night relied on a different mix of sonic elements to fill out. It’s still funky, it’s still jazzy, but it’s not as sonically intimate. The mix is more ambient. Not to mention that Maxwell sounds more mature and refined in his creativity. His subject matter is also more expansive. This isn’t a romance concept album like his debut. Nor is it heartbreak-driven like the trilogy’s first installment BLACKsummers’night. This is love, loss, and conflict.
Maxwell kicked off the blackSUMMERS’night era by making it clear there was love and adoration on this album. The aquatic lead single “Lake By The Ocean” crashes like foamy waves on the shore. “We’ll be one like drops in slow motion,” he describes. The song is about searching for love and finding that one other person to be content with amidst a sea of others. It’s a notable return to songs about love following the heartbreak-driven BLACKsummers’night.
With any strong body of work, sequencing is key. blackSUMMERS’night launches with the enrapturing and refreshing “All The Ways Love Can Feel.” The song envelops you by juxtaposing the percussion’s sputtering determination and Maxwell’s cool, calm, and collected vocal. It feels like love washing over you. The horns accent in all the right places, while synthesizers dot across the soundscape like twinkling stars across a galaxy.
My favorite record is the jubilant and effervescent “III.” Demons may be following him, but the woman he has his eyes on is a winner for him. The shimmering keyboard gives it a distinct, almost harpsichord-esque sound. It’s such a bright record of adoration. They can do anything together, Maxwell imagines. Walk the High Line, go to Paris, do it big. Songs like “III” help emphasize that this is the ‘summer’ piece of this trilogy. This record was built for blistering summer days and balmy summer nights.
There’s a distinct blues inspiration that drives the brooding “Lost,” one of the two tracks he worked on with Sade’s Stuart Matthewman. It’s driven by a blues time signature, but the electric guitar gives this lamenting torch song an edge that makes it sound like something Prince might conjure up. Maxwell conjures a deep sense of longing, and aimlessness in his life as he watches his baby from a distance, living her life with husband and children. He’s either the other man, or the long lost lover, but either way he’s incomplete and unsure of where to go next.
There’s so much good material across blackSUMMERS’night. Maxwell gets galaxial on “Gods,” which is all about a power struggle and illustrated by a Tron-esque music video. He’s hopeful on “Fingers Crossed,” and optimistic that a lost love can be found again. And he’s reflective as he aligns the stages of his relationship into the seasons on “The Fall.” The album closes with 23 seconds of waves crashing, titled “Night.” And with that, Maxwell washes away as we await blacksummers’NIGHT.
Listen to blackSUMMERS’night: