A Forgotten Classic: Al Green, ‘The Belle Album’

Al Green in 1977
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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Few artists have, over the course of a career, navigated the carnal and the sacred better than Al Green. You must remember “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” “Let’s Stay Together,” "You Ought to Be with Me," “I’m Still in Love With You” - all of them relationship songs between a man and his beloved. Then, he became Reverend Al Green, and for 13 years made acclaimed gospel albums that dealt with the relationship between a man and God. While he’s still Reverend Al, the years since 1995 have found him bridging the gaps between matters of the heart and matters of the holy.

The first indications of that distinction came in 1977, with The Belle Album. Coming three years after a tragic domestic incident (his lover had burned him with boiling liquid, before taking her own life with his gun), The Belle Album found Green wrestling with where he was - romantically, spiritually - versus where he knew he needed to be.

That struggle appears in the first song on the album (“Belle”), on which he implores his woman “It’s you that I want / But Him that I need.” That one line sets the tone for the entire record.

“I Feel Good” is a breakneck dance tune with more percussion than you can hit with a stick (or a mallet, or your hands). Green expounds on the joy in letting his sacred side take the lead in life - “There's something about King Jesus that makes me feel good,” he sings, over and over, while his band stomps and rattles.

The gospel leanings Green is pursuing are never more obvious than on “All ‘n’ All,” which sounds like it could be played at any Baptist church, on any given Sunday. Green sings of redemption, of salvation, and of devotion – all connected to his higher power.

Yet, Green can swing back to the carnal on a dime, as he does on “Chariots of Fire.” With lines like “I want to play in your garden, baby / When you want it give me a shout,” he proves his attention is not just on gold-paved streets he can’t see, but to the object of affection standing right in front of him.

Nowhere was the struggle for Al Green’s soul more pronounced than on The Belle Album. His subsequent abandonment of secular music and embrace of his ministry shows us all which influence won in the end. Thus, The Belle Album can be seen as a kind of farewell, one that still resonates so many years on.

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