I’ll admit right off the bat my worthiness for discussing a reggae dub/dancehall classic is suspect at best. It’s a genre I’ve been consciously ignorant of, except for the obligatory Bob Marley Legend CD that’s there with Mark Twain and Milton on every liberal arts freshman syllabus and a Buju Banton CD I got after a college rugby trip to Jamaica. My own personal record collection is remarkably thin in the reggae category, comprised solely of Bob Marley’s Kaya, a Trojan Records Jamaican music comp called 20 Tighten Ups, the excellent Jimmy Cliff record Wonderful World, Beautiful People, a handful of King Tubby mp3s and Gregory Isaacs' immortal Soon Forward.
But after a frantic two days pulling a drawer-full of scattered year-old receipts together into some kind of coherent shape, then trudging four times to my local H&R Block, only to be confronted with just how pathetic 2008’s financial record really was, I knew no other music, slim as the pickings might be, that would soothe my weary soul. One look at Isaac’s face on the cover of Soon Forward—his head poking out from a yellow background, the image nearly sepia-tone, his two hands on either side of his head, propping it up wearily, his eyes red and contentedly stoned, his whole demeanor expressing a temporary, hard-won, hopeful repose—and I knew this was the album to set my mind at ease.
Gregory Isaacs is one of the most enduring, innovative and prolific vocalists in Jamaican and international music history, having recorded over 500 albums. That’s albums, not 45's. There’s thousands of those. He’s also multi-talented and versatile, producing and writing much of his own songs and material, re-working it over the years to fit his evolving musical style, creating whole genres of sound (he’s credited with inventing “lover’s rock”) and working well up to the minute with some of the most inventive producers of modern reggae and dub (King Tubby, Junior Reid, etc.). But he also knows something about patience, about persistence and about continuing to believe in your talent and your dream in the face of setback and adversity. He began recording in the late 60’s in Kinston, solo and with a band called the Concords. However, though he put out record after record for five straight years, his voice and his music never caught on with Jamaican listeners. Finally he opened a record store with an in-house label, African Museum, as a means of putting out his own music. At last, he hit the big time. A hit single Isaacs produced himself, “My Only Lover,” put him on the map. He was determined to stay there.
Soon Forward arrived six years later. It was Isaacs’ first record on Virgin’s "Front Line" label, and he was poised for the kind of massive international fame that Bob Marley had enjoyed in England, Europe and America. That didn’t happen until his 1982 album, Night Nurse, recorded, ironically, for Virgin’s chief rival, Island (on their Mango label). But no matter; Soon Forward is an important and instantly lovable album, appearing at a crossroads in reggae music when dub, dancehall and “roots reggae” or Rastafarian religious elements all collided as they began to spin in separate directions. In overall sound, Soon Forward is most like a less conspicuously produced version of Marley’s Kaya, of a year earlier (the same year as Isaac’s seminal Cool Ruler LP, also for Virgin Front Line).
The songs are evenly distributed between love songs and protest songs, as evidenced by the juxtaposition of the first two cuts. “Universal Tribulation” gets the album going in a deep, mournful groove in the vein of Marley with its timeless plea for patience and passive understanding. But then “Mr. Brown” begins with a sprightly drum beat, kicking off a story of a man confronting his lover’s father, with the taunting refrain that “they might be relatives,” and warning him to civil. It’s a damn strange love song, but Isaacs makes it go down like honey on a biscuit. His song “Lonely Girl,” also on Side A, is a recognizable classic, having been recorded by an army of other singers in reggae and R&B settings.
The love songs continue on Side B, with the innocuous “My Relationship” telling the story of a man pining away for his girl who’s gone to college, humorously trying to convince her to remember him and be faithful. But then the record’s two instincts begin to merge, resulting in the beautiful, cryptic “Slave Market” which opens with the haunting pronouncement, “You’ll never get away!” then settles into a smooth, laconic beat augmented by shuffling keyboards, punctuating guitar riffs and a soulful organ refrain to tell a story of ancient injustice brought to a surprisingly deep, double-loaded ending.
All through the album, seeming simplicity gives way to proficient, subtle complexity. From track to track, the opening drum riffs sound identical, until one starts to listen to the organ solos interlacing the verses, or the trance-inducing guitar lines, all economical and flawlessly executed. The lines of the songs themselves have a simplistic, repetitive poignancy, as exemplified in the apparently standard issue “Down the Line,” which begins with a memorable riff and the familiar story of a man hassled by the cops for trying to roll a joint. But as the song gathers steam, Isaacs simply echoes the phrase, “going down down the line” until it takes on a deeper, more universal meaning for all people caught in an unbeatable system of corruption, intimidation and injustice.
But the album opens like a flower with its last song, the title track “Soon Forward.” Produced by the famed duo Sly and Robbie, the song is an eternal anthem of quiet, hopeful intensity chronicling a man’s simple anticipation of a date with his girl, begging her to “turn me on, turn me on now.” It feels like a grand victory in world stirred by the soft, satisfying heat of simple pleasures.
GREGORY ISAACS SOON FORWARD, 1979, Virgin Front Line Records