The critic who snubbed Exodus

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior reporter

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

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AS the 21st century approached, major publications and cable/television channels rushed to release their 'best of the millennium' lists.

In terms of music, Time Magazine selected Bob Marley's Exodus as its Album of The Century; Rolling Stone Magazine hailed the singer's One Love as their Song of the Millennium.

Interestingly, Rolling Stone was not impressed by Exodus when it was released in the summer of 1977. The album that contained songs like its epic title, Waiting in Vain, The Heathen, Jammin', One Love/People Get Ready and Natural Mystic was panned by writer Greil Marcus.

He wrote that, “From the time the Wailers' first American album, Catch a Fire, was released here, it was drama that carried the Wailers' music across the water and made it matter to people who had never heard of reggae, and who may well have had to look up Jamaica on a map to figure out exactly where it was. Concrete Jungle was as dramatic as Muddy Waters' Rollin' Stone; I Shot the Sheriff was a one-act play that crossed the boards in under five minutes. On the Wailers' disappointing last album, Rastaman Vibration, there was still War, where Marley summoned up visions of eternal conflict merely by chanting excerpts from a speech by Haile Selassie. For that matter, Bob Marley onstage defines the kind of drama that grows naturally out of the music of a people who refuse to accept their native land as their true home, whose music, again and again, points them toward the temporally impossible but mystically necessary goal of a return to Africa. As with the overwhelming Jah Guide on ex-Wailer Peter Tosh's exciting new album, Equal Rights, Marley onstage is ominous, determined, full of barely suppressed violence. At the same time he offers a suggestion of warmth, of unshakable confidence, of an invitation to the audience to follow him on a heroic quest.

Exodus doesn't reach these heights, nor does it seem to aim for them, save on the seven-minute title performance, which sounds like War on a slow day and wears out long before it is half over. If I didn't have more faith in Marley I'd think he was trying to go disco — the tune is that mechanical. The four songs on the first side that lead up to Exodus — songs of religious politics — are all well made, but within the most narrow limits; the best of them is Natural Mystic, Marley's Blowin' in The Wind (though where Dylan seemed to say the answers were blowing away, Marley is certain they are blowing straight to anyone whose soul is pure enough to receive them). On the second side, the album falls apart; the mix of sex songs (on Jamming, Marley sometimes sounds like an obsequious nightclub singer) and tunes about keeping faith simply do not sustain one's interest. Marley's performance never reaches out; it seems to collapse inward. There's no sense of the dangerous, secret messages one half heard on earlier albums; on Exodus there are no secrets to tell.

It is very hard to make any sort of more than superficial judgement on a Wailers album until one knows who it is made for — Jamaicans? American whites? Jamaicans in England? whites in England? Africans? — and I don't know. What bothers me is that I have the feeling Marley, likely pressed by his label to continue the search for an American breakthrough without losing his original base in Jamaica and England, does not know either. The complete lack of extremes on Exodus — of deep emotion, intensely drawn situations or memorable arrangements and melodies — does not mean Marley is playing it safe, but it does seem to imply some sort of paralysis that must be broken before he can again strike with real power.”

Most fans did not agree with Marcus. Exodus made the Top 20 of Billboard's 200 Album chart and was a hit in the United Kingdom.

Ironically, it is listed at 163 on Rolling Stone's '500 Greatest Albums of all Time'.

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