The 50-year legacy of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On

The landmark album has been re-released in a deluxe new edition featuring 18 unreleased tracks

Soul singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye at Golden West Studios in 1973 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images
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Where do you go after delivering a career-defining work?

It was a question said to be gnawing away at Marvin Gaye before he recorded his 1973 album Let’s Get It On.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary with another deluxe edition out on Friday, the original release came two years after his masterpiece, What’s Going On.

That album not only expanded the horizons of soul music with its poignant socio-political lyricism and a game-changing production, where songs were presented as a suite rather than a collection of individual tracks, it also soundtracked a troubled era in US society at odds with itself over the Vietnam War.

More than commercial success, What’s Going On’s ultimate achievement allowed Gaye full artistic control over future projects from Motown, a label notorious for calling its own tune.

This would all have been ideal for the production of his next work, as long as he had something to say, something Gaye was initially unsure of in 1972 while grappling with writer’s block.

Clarity arrived with the decision to focus on the internal rather than the external.

Where What’s Going On is his American state of the union address, the brief 31 minutes of Let’s Get It On has Gaye exploring the inner politics of love, faith and various forms of human connection.

Some of these strands crystallise in the title track, which opens the album.

Accompanied by a sumptuous orchestral arrangement, delicate guitars and slightly off kilter percussion, the original lyrics are said to be more spiritual before taking on a sensual turn.

However, the original sentiments remain.

Among the romantic word play, Gaye still searches for a deeper union, with lyrics such as, "We're all sensitive people with so much to give", grounded in honesty, "Ain't gonna push, won't push you".

This is further accentuated in the second song on the record, Please Stay (Once You Go Away), the kind of melodramatic horn-soaked ballad Motown is famed for, in which a vulnerable Gaye begs his lover to give it another shot.

The dynamism of the song-writing is highlighted in If I Should Die Tonight. Sparse, yet filled with surprising vocal turns, the lyrics are both a goodbye love letter and eulogy.

"If I should die tonight, though it seems far before my time, I won't die blue 'cause I've known you," Gaye begins before asking us if we lived a life well spent.

"How many eyes have seen their dream? How many arms have held their dream? How many hearts have really, really felt their world stand still?"

It is here we appreciate Gaye's battle for creative control.

Where earlier career hits Stubborn Kind of Fellow and It Takes Two were lovable yet cookie-cutter takes on love and heartbreak, If I Should Die Tonight removes the rose-tinted lenses to reflect on love as it often is, open-ended, messy and unpredictable.

Then again, Gaye didn't completely discard his earlier sound.

The summery Come Get to This is a flashback to his1960s commercial era with its exuberant melodic hooks, bobbing basslines and breezy strings.

After a bravura live version of Distant Lover, the album closes with the sultry ambience of You Sure Love to Ball and Just to Keep You Satisfied.

The latter orchestral ballad meditates on the emotional toll of an uninhibited life.

By fleeing an emotionally abusive relationship, Gaye ultimately realises the deep bond he craves cannot be sustained only through physical intimacy.

So he bids her farewell with a faint hope of “maybe we'll meet down the line”.

Now, 50 years on, the legacy of Let’s Get It On endures.

While lacking the heft of What’s Going On, rightfully regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, Let's Get It On pushed the sonic and lyrical boundaries of popular music.

One can even draw a link from Let’s Get It On to a string of potent popular albums in the ensuing decades, such as Madonna’s Erotica (1992) and SZA’s star-making 2022 album SOS.

Gaye’s unbridled view of relationships also inspired generations of future RnB stars to release thought-provoking albums about the body and mind, including D'Angelo's Voodoo (2000) and Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite (1996).

With the new edition of Let's Get It On featuring a new Dolby Atmos mix and 18 previously unreleased tracks from the original recording sessions, fans, future artists and producers will have a lot to dig in to and savour.

Updated: August 25, 2023, 6:02 PM