1971 found the United States deeply involved in a seemingly meaningless war in Vietnam. Families were destroyed, men were drafted across seas to fight for unclear reasons, and many an American was simply wondering what was happening to the world. Mowtown legend Marvin Gaye took a step back and concisely asked “what’s going on” over eloquently produced orchestral arrangements for 35 minutes of flawless, politically-charged musical material. The album is a singular concept work, each song flows into the next, and some absolutely transcendent musical moments strike in the middle of the individual tracks. The soaring high note as Gaye pleads “save the world that is destined to die” on “Save the Children” descending a half step on the final beat has always struck me as well as the massive shift from driving funk with smokey horns back to the spacey darkness of the rest of the album on “Right On.”
It’s also important to remember that this work is not entirely meant for “all Americans.” Alongside “War is hell,” Gaye also wonders when the police brutality facing the black community will end: “for those of us who live where hatred is enslaved.” He wants to know when he–and other people of color–will truly feel welcome in their own country. It’s an album that criticizes war and asks for a movement for peace for all, but it’s also an album that tackles racially driven inequality at home.