Recording of November 2007: Exodus: 30th Anniversary Edition

BOB MARLEY: Exodus: 30th Anniversary Edition
Island 314 586 408-2 (CD). 2007. Bob Marley & the Wailers, prods.; Karl Pitterson, eng.; Guy Bidmead, Terry Barham, asst. engs.; Chris Blackwell, Aston Barrett, Karl Pitterson, mix. AAD? TT: 37:18
Performance *****
Sonics *****

What kind of record would you make if someone had just tried to assassinate you? How would that kind of event be reflected in the music? Would the prevailing emotions of the music be bitterness? Fear? A seething desire for revenge?

Those were the questions surrounding Bob Marley in London from January through April 1977, when he and his band/family group, The Wailers, recorded their fifth album for Island Records, Exodus. Named "Album of the Century" by Time in 1999, this masterpiece has now turned 30, and has occasioned yet another reissue blitz.

On December 3, 1976, gunmen broke into Marley's compound on Hope Road, in Kingston, Jamaica, and wounded Marley and three of his entourage, including his wife, Rita, who had a bullet lodged between her skull and scalp. The gunmen had emerged from the ongoing strife between the island nation's two warring political factions, the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party, which, by 1976, had turned Jamaica into a war zone. Although both sides were keen to exploit one of Jamaica's leading celebrities, Marley had hewn to a course of carefully cultivated neutrality. But when a long-planned concert called Smile Jamaica seemed to be in support of Prime Minister Michael Manley's PNP Party, assumptions were made and Marley was attacked. Although he played the show bandaged and in pain, the singer-songwriter-guitarist left immediately afterward, first for the Bahamas, then on to London.

Once ensconced in a house on Oakley Street, in Chelsea, Marley and the band began work at two London studios. In Bob Marley & The Wailers: Exodus (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2007), a book of photos and reminiscences that's being published as part of the album's 30th anniversary, Vivien Goldman, who worked as an Island PR person at the time, calls the project "a defiant exorcism" and a "survival narrative...a strategic, spiritual self-help manual on surviving conflict and betrayal and attaining happiness." While that may be overstating the case, Exodus has an undeniable emotional trajectory that begins with the brooding, darker-tinged songs "Guiltiness" and "The Heathen."

The universality of Exodus—what's made it not only reggae's holy grail, but an achievement that music fans of all stripes can relate to—lies in the joy inherent in much of the music that follows. This is pop in the best sense of that often-maligned term, made even more miraculous given the unsettled circumstances surrounding its creation. Exodus contains Marley's most magnificent melodies and most personal lyrics. While the personal struggles audible in the record's first half are hard to ignore, and the music they're couched in is strong and distinct, it's the warm, confident rush of the album's final six songs, beginning with the title track, that feel like blood rushing into a limb that has fallen asleep, and shoot the album into a creative stratosphere few have ever dreamed of reaching.

Opening with Marley's scratchy, skanking guitar, "Exodus," in its tone and attack, begins the album's re-ascent into optimistic heights: "Open your eyes and look within / Are you ever satisfied / With the life you're living?" And in the immortal rhythms, harmony vocals, and melody of "Jamming," which opens with a sparse percussion-and-keyboard groove, Marley admits, "True love that now exists / Is the love I can't resist / So jam by my side."

The album then turns to its ultimate greatness with two serene, charmed melodies attributed to Marley's relationship with Cindy Breakspeare, a Jamaican who at the time was the reigning Miss World and, to many observers, Marley's soul mate. Those who thought Marley was at his best singing about Rastafarianism and political struggle were proved wrong by "Waiting in Vain," where "Tears in my eyes burn / tears in my eyes burn / While I'm waiting / While I'm waiting for my turn." The song's final choruses, which he takes at double time, may be Marley's most soulful vocal moments on record. He follows them with the sweet meander of "Turn Your Lights Down Low," whose seductive sway and sentimental pleas show the influence of American R&B. By the jubilant one-two closing of "Three Little Birds," with its killer pipe-organ keyboard vamp, and another Marley classic, "One Love," inspired by Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," the reggae superstar is back at his blithe best as he ends the record with "Let's get together and feel alright." These words and the accompanying melody have in recent years been adapted for television commercials by Jamaica's tourism board, an irony that would surely have made Marley smile.

While Marley was Exodus's only songwriter, his band—which included drummer Carlton Barrett and his brother, bassist Aston "Familyman" Barrett, as well as the I-Threes vocal trio of Marcia Griffith, Rita Marley, and Judy Mowatt—was at the height of its powers in these sessions. The album is marked by fine sound, including judicious use of echo and a striking dynamic balance between reggae's requisite low-end thump and delicate, well-defined highs. (Some of the songs cut during the Exodus sessions ended up on Marley's next album, Kaya, released in 1978.)

This being 2007, a time when the record business is coming apart at the seams, no 30th-anniversary edition could be without its complications. In 2001, Exodus was reissued in Universal's Deluxe Edition series, and included four alternate takes, a tune that had originally appeared as the B side of one of the album's singles, five tracks from the June 1977 show at London's Rainbow Theatre, four tracks from a session with Lee Perry, and a radio ad for Exodus. None of that extra material appears on the 30th Anniversary Edition. The entire Rainbow Theatre show is now available in audio and video on the new 30th-anniversary DVD, Exodus: Live at the Rainbow (30th Anniversary Edition). While the 30th-anniversary CD and DVD are available separately or packaged together, none of these format games dim what's inside: the only reggae album ever to enter the world's pop consciousness and stay there.—Robert Baird