Many of the leading lights in the so-called "neo-soul" or "natural R&B" movement of the mid-'90s seemed to suffer from mid-career crises, withdrawing from the spotlight in the new millennium. Sade, Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo--all have been M.I.A. for the last decade or so, and the same was true of Brooklyn-born singer Maxwell, who has not released a new album since his third studio disc, "Now," in 2001.
Maxwell reportedly spent his lost years living as a "regular person"--"People tend to be so hell-bent on remaining famous that you become desensitized to the music industry to some level," he told Billboard--as well as falling in and out of love. The progressive emotions of that relationship--longing, devotion and finally regret--fuel much of "BLACKsummers'night," the first installment of what he says will be a trilogy. Yet if he still represents a welcome and more enlightened alternative to the bump 'n' grind cliches of too much modern hip-hop, overall, Maxwell's return is a sleepy affair.
Though they are gorgeously recorded, tastefully arranged and beautifully played in the old-school way by flesh-and-blood musicians eschewing digital tomfoolery, only a handful of the songs written with guitarist Hod David leave a lasting impact, chief among them the first single "Pretty Wings" and the anthemic "Help Somebody." Too much of the rest of the disc--the largely acoustic "Playing Possum," the opening atmospheric ballad "Bad Habits," the mildly funky slow jam "Stop the World"--never rise above the level of pleasant background music.