10 Defining Albums, #2: What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye (Review)

This is an album in which I still find peace, relief, and inspiration to this day.
What's Going On - Marvin Gaye

In keeping with a recent Facebook meme, these are 10 albums, listed by artist in alphabetical order, that had a huge impact on me, changed the way I experienced music, expanded my horizons, and maybe even saved me. They’re not necessarily the best albums or even my favorite albums by the respective artists, though there’s some overlap. But without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Recorded at the height of the ’70s social unrest, What’s Going On is sung from the perspective of a Vietnam war vet who’s come home and is trying to make sense of all of the chaos surrounding him (e.g, drug addiction, environmental concerns, poverty, protests).

The first six songs are about as perfect a run of songs as you can imagine. The music is lush and gorgeous, filled with sweeping arrangements but also packed with groove, courtesy of the Funk Brothers. The lyrics are poignant and reflective, as Gaye pours his heart and soul into every word.

There’s a sad irony to “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate,” given that Gaye would eventually die at the hands of his own father. And I love this line — “Who are they to judge us/Simply ’cause our hair is long” — a reference to the hippie peace movement that’s a small example of the sort of universal humanity that fills these songs. And “God Is Love” is about as rapturous as music gets, as Gaye sings, in that angelic voice of his, “When we call on Him for mercy, mercy Father/He’ll be merciful, my friend” with the presence of a dozen gospel choirs.

What’s Going On was a deeply personal album for Gaye, and represented something of a fresh start for him as he sought to break free from both a music career that had grown increasingly stifling and a number of personal struggles (e.g., cocaine addition, a failing marriage, IRS troubles). He took all of that frustration, sorrow, and brokenness, and transformed them into one of the most beautiful and deeply human albums of all time.

On a personal note, this was arguably the first soul/R&B album that I really listened to. I was deep into all sorts of bizarre experimental electronic music at the time, and What’s Going On was a complete 180 from all of that. It was a grounding experience, and an album in which I still find peace, relief, and inspiration to this day.

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