December 16, 1999
Songs Of Freedom
[a]Bob Marley[/a] never let anybody down. His genius worked on many levels: he was an inventive musician, a songwriter of mystic power and beauty, a honeyed singer, and a statesman of revolutionary pr
9 / 10
Bob Marley never let anybody down. His genius worked on many levels: he was an inventive musician, a songwriter of mystic power and beauty, a honeyed singer, and a statesman of revolutionary proportions. He was the Third World's first (and, it could be argued, sadly, its last) true international superstar. His achievements stand shoulder to shoulder with those of The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Elvis. Given his humble origins they may even overshadow them. He was the man.
Until recently, the uninitiated could find out about his power by either buying his 13 odd albums or by joining with the many millions who've bought the sturdy 'Legend' compilation. With 'Songs Of Freedom', Island have bridged the gap. It's not a comprehensive box set, indeed some of its omissions are frustrating, but its four CDs profile the whole of Marley's musical life, from his first ska recordings to an extraordinary, touching acoustic take on 'Redemption Song' performed at his last concert, in Pittsburgh, USA in September, 1980, eight months before his death from cancer.
The story that it tells is how the son of a teenage black Jamaican girl and a 50-year-old white British army captain who grew up in one of Jamaica's toughest ghettos inducted the previously marginal musical language of reggae into the international pop vocabulary. It shows how Marley married fierce, brave insurrectionary lyrical statements with some of the most poignant and lovely melodies committed to tape. Songs from each of his studio albums are present, as well as rare versions, the odd B-side, outtakes, and live versions.
A lovingly compiled and comprehensive booklet is also attached, and it's from here that some minor gripes emerge. How, for example, can the notes describe at length the great '400 Years' from 'Catch A Fire' (his first and among his best albums for Island) yet see it omitted from the compilation? The box set is, therefore, hamstrung slightly by its incompleteness, but the warmth and strength of the collection, in songs such as 'Slave Driver', 'Exodus', 'Zimbabwe' and 'Small Axe', shine brightly enough as to blind the critic from too harsh a judgement.
When complaining that the 78 songs included are not comprehensive enough, it's worth remembering the tragedy of Marley's life: he was 36 when he died. How vast a canon would he have produced had he lived to this day? Sadly, though, the giant who united Jamaica's warring politicians and was shot for his trouble, who brought reggae to the West, who was thrown off a Sly Stone tour for being too good, who composed standards that crossed racial and musical genres was finally struck down by a toe injured in a football match that turned cancerous.
Such a postscript seems ludicrous for this great man, but maybe God felt unnerved by the redemptive power of Marley's music and wanted him somewhere he could keep an eye on him. That music, though, keeps performing miracles down here, as pure and sweet and powerful as the day he sung it.
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