Sufjan Stevens once described his music as a clash between high art and low art to the point where the listener has to ask, “Is this good music? Is this good writing or is this just silly?” Many musicians who try to keep their music lyrically simple can bring up similar questions, especially those whose lyrics suggest vague notions of love and positivity. Of all of the folk-type music I’ve heard that attempts this, Bob Marley is the only musician who doesn’t come off as corny. Marley was the rare artist who, at least in appearance, sincerely bought into the substance of what he wrote. It’s one of the reasons his live shows were so revered. His emotional sincerity, however, is especially clear on “Exodus,” an album that stunningly meshes activism with spirituality and love.
“Exodus,” which turned 40 this summer, always felt like Bob Marley’s ultimate studio album in that it fully realized him as a musical force. It was only Marley’s third album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the other leading members of The Wailers. While his previous album, “Rastaman Vibration,” had higher US chart success and his first “solo” album, “Natty Dread,” is a classic in its own right, “Exodus” always felt more spiritual. It is very much a political album and “Exodus” has the urgency that such an album requires, but the passion melts into joy for being alive.
The circumstances behind the recording of “Exodus” are now legend. In the 1970s, Jamaica’s political climate was something of a battlefield. The Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party were at odds: The People’s National Party under Prime Minister Michael Manley pursued socialist policies and an alliance with Cuba, and the Opposition Labour Party pursued more conservative policies and an alliance with America. The two parties used gangs to fight their ideological opponents. Marley felt the need to hold the “Smile Jamaica Concert” to promote peace and unity. Two days before the concert, however, Marley and his wife were shot. Both survived and performed at the concert, turning what was supposed to be a one-song performance into 90 minutes. Shortly after, Marley moved to London and recorded “Exodus” there.
“Exodus” has a stronger British influence than The Wailers’ previous albums, incorporating rock, funk, and a variety of other genres popular in England. What makes “Exodus” so distinct, however, is not the influences but the album’s unconventional structure. Rarely in music are albums as back-loaded as “Exodus.” While both sides of the album are political and spiritual, the first side deals with these ideas in more religious terms and the second side uses more mortal themes, like partying, sex, and love. This second side includes the most captivating songs on the album. But out of context, songs like “Jamming” and “One Love/People Get Ready” don’t carry the same weight. Part of the reason those songs feel so fresh despite their well-tread topics is because “Exodus” features a distinctly inward progression. “Natural Mystic” focuses on the masses, while “So Much Things to Say” and “Guiltiness” focus on the oppressors of the people. “The Heathen” acts as a sort of transition to the oppressed, and “Exodus” and “Jamming” follow. Marley continues to narrow the lens to two people in “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and to the self in “Three Little Birds” and “One Love/People Get Ready.” “Exodus” is an album that calls for change in Jamaica, but the progression of the album implies changes from outside in. In the context of the album, loving one another isn’t just a bland, vague sentiment. Instead, it means actively ensuring that the impoverished and oppressed are properly fed and aided. This is why Marley’s proclamations of love and peace never felt as hokey as those of many other artists. There were strong convictions behind these sentiments because he at least appeared to genuinely believe in the power of love and understanding to help the poor and the hungry of Jamaica.
“Exodus” doesn’t just work because of its structure, however. The music is brilliant. The Barrett brothers’ percussion is key to the spiritual feel, and Junior Marvin and Al Anderson’s guitars on the title track and on “Turn Your Lights Down Low” are thoroughly seductive. “Jamming” is one of the funkiest tracks I’ve ever heard. The I Threes’ vocalization is stunning, especially on “Three Little Birds” and on “One Love/People Get Ready,” where they’re essential to the uplifting power of the songs. Above all else, however, Marley’s voice shines and coats each track with a sort of passionate exuberance. As a protest song, “So Much Things to Say” has no right to be nearly as bubbly as it is, but Marley makes it oddly joyful. Similarly, “Waiting in Vain” is song of unrequited love, but when Marley sings, he sounds so happy just to be able to feel so strongly about someone. The exuberance might come partly from having survived his assassination attempt and partly from just caring about his source material.
Forty years later, “Exodus” is one of the most uplifting protest albums ever. The spirituality and positivity work to energize the album and instill a sense that love and peace really can save everyone. Marley was never able to recapture the energy of “Exodus,” but the album’s motivational power is timeless.
—Staff writer Edward M. Litwin can be reached at email@example.com.
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