Of all the classic-era Rick James albums, Garden Of Love is probably the least-admired of the bunch. It was an affair borne of bad circumstances (James was fighting with his representation and Motown at the time and delivered a short-form album out of spite) and funk fans were confused by its heavy emphasis on balladry. James would subsequently view it’s minor level of success as a sign he’d grown too soft, resulting in a musical toughening-up that led to the classic Street Songs album.
In fairness to James, there is a certain complacency to Garden Of Love. It was recorded in leisurely Carribbean settings and this is reflected in its low-key, ballad-driven sound. Fans of his “punk funk” style would only find two songs in that vein on the album: the lead-off single “Big Time,” a joyful uptempo funkster driven by a classically James-ian mix of exuberant horns, strings and female backing vocals, and “Mary-Go-Round,” a percolating dance tune whose style harkened back to his first hit, “You And I.” Both are intricately arranged in James’ trademark style and offer plenty of hooks but neither breaks new ground.
The remainder of the album is devoted to the kind of ballads that were usually used as changes of pace on a typical funk-heavy James outing. Their prevalence on Garden Of Love suggests James was trying to move into the kind of “love man” territory staked out by Barry White or James’ labelmate Marvin Gaye. “Don’t Give Up On Love” and “Summer Love” have lavish arrangements that anchor their sweet blends of synths and horns with a gentle but insistent pulse from the rhythm section. James lays into each song with a steamy, frequently quasi-operatic vocal style that is smoothed out at chorus time by carefully-arranged backing vocals that supply a gently sweet contrast to his intensity.
However, the best ballad on the album is “Island Lady,” a lustful tribute to a Caribbean beauty that offers rich acoustic textures (acousting guitar and harp) that are fleshed out with gentle synth and horn touches as well as some skillfully-mixed ocean sound effects. The album is rounded out with two versions of a short piece called “Gettin’ It On (In The Sunshine),” whose bird-call sound effects and soft-rock mood bring back fond memories of Minnie Riperton.
The end result isn’t top-tier stuff for James but it’s also not the failure that he and his critics consider it to be. Its lavish sound gives it an old-school charm that fans of 1970’s R&B will find undeniable and, despite its truncated running time, it offers a consistent album experience. If you like James’ work from this era, you’ll want it to round out the collection – just be ready to get mellow.
Collector’s Note: Hip-O Select did a fine job with their recent reissue of this album. The new disc boasts an appropriately plush-sounding remastering job, informative liner notes from Michael Veal and a couple of noteworthy bonus tracks. The first is an unissued remix of “Big Time” by John Morales: it’s twice as long as the album but never gets dull because Morales skillfully navigates the multiple layers of its arrangement to highlight a consistently interesting string of hooks buried in the musically-dense album version. There’s also a short but atmospheric demo for a song called “Gypsy Girl” that was later transformed into a different song on a later album (“Teardrops” on Throwin’ Down, to be specific). It’s well worth the premium price for vintage funk fans.