Landing on a Hundred
(One Little Indian/Breakaway)
IT'S come late, this album. In many ways. Late in the year and even later to be picked up by us; late in any kind of release schedule, given it's a decade since his last album, The Headphone Masterpiece (a debut which itself came a decade into his career); and late to the party when it comes to new soul, old soul or just plain soul in the 21st century, as that debut was a sprawling mix of pop, rock, soul and funk.
However, fall for this album - as I and many others have - and you will be asking yourself why does everybody else rush? You'll be wondering who decided that being first, instead of best or most meaningful, was the point? And you'll toss up how soon is too soon to put this back on the turntable - hey, it should be on a turntable - without looking obsessive?
This is an album in which Cody Chesnutt reveals the fruits of years of self-reflection, exploration and spiritual journeying. Like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the early '70s, Chesnutt wears the conversation with his God on the outside, both in exaltation and need: asking for help, giving thanks, questioning turns and celebrating outcomes. But as with Gaye and Wonder, there is so much earthiness and openness in that conversation that it doesn't rub against any natural antipathy you might have to god-bothering but instead smooths it out.
Not surprisingly, Gaye and Wonder's musical influence also can be heard throughout Landing on a Hundred. It's there with the rich voices and an open embrace (immediately in the song of praise that opens the album, Til I Met Thee, and later in the attractive Chips Down), the liquid church-meets-club pulse of Scroll Call and the combination of a sunshine front and velvety caress that quietly satisfies.
But just as smooth soul is only part of the deal here, those influences are not the only roots of the songs. There's the fluid groove and eye for hurt of Curtis Mayfield (Don't Wanna Go the Other Way's brisk but relentless capturing of the fear of taking the wrong path), the more urban chop of Bobby Womack (you hear him in particular in That's Still Mama) and, with more contemporary resonance, both John Legend and a band that has worked with both Chesnutt and Legend, the Roots (picked out in the modern sonic thickness of Don't Follow Me).
As with all those whose steps he's following in, Chesnutt casts his gaze over the lacerating urban decay, fractured families and quick temptations of life and doesn't look away. He then tells the stories, such as Under the Spell of the Handout, in such a way that you want to sink down and stay in for the long haul. Late, but for sure, he's made one of the albums of the year.