Al Green's new album, Lay It Down, doesn't sound like a return to his early-'70s style. It sounds like it was literally recorded back then and just now brought out of the vault. But unlike his last two would-be comeback projects, this one wasn't helmed by the producer who actually cut those classics with him, Willie Mitchell; Green's new collaborators, Ahmir ''?uestlove'' Thompson (of the Roots) and James Poyser (a frequent Erykah Badu collaborator), have taken an even greater interest in painstakingly re-creating that sound. If the result sounds effortless, it was apparently anything but behind the scenes. ?uestlove has described the making of the album as a ''minefield,'' since the record label at first insisted on a neo-soul sound (Thompson just wanted to skip the ''neo'' part and go for straight-up soul), and even Green was resistant to ''revisiting the past.'' Finding common ground took so long from start to finish, it's been close to three years, by some accounts that one of the core musicians, guitarist Chalmers ''Spanky'' Alford, passed away before Lay It Down could be released. But in ?uestlove's telling, Amy Winehouse's surprising success last year made it possible to finish the record with all the retro flourishes he wanted. And out of the minefield has come something of a miracle.
Fans will note a slight maturing in Green's range, but at 62, he glides between his chuckling lower register and breezy falsetto with the same ease as ever. The musical elements, meanwhile, resonate even more faithfully to his old catalog from the brassy horn contributions of the Dap-Kings (who also back Winehouse and Sharon Jones), to the string section that shows up on five of the 11 tracks, to the deft, just-barely-held-together-sounding chemistry of the four core soul instrumentalists. People associate ''soul'' with ''sweat,'' yet the best numbers here such as the exquisite ''All I Need'' have Green and ?uestlove reminding us that sometimes the sexiest effect is achieved by appearing to do as little as possible. And when he occasionally lets that discipline slip as in ''I'm Wild About You,'' which Green has said was inspired by watching Animal Planet (!!) it's as aggressively sensual as the singer's allowed himself to get since well back into his pre-gospel period.
As for the vocal contributions from Anthony Hamilton (on the title track and ''You've Got the Love I Need''), Corinne Bailey Rae (''Take Your Time''), and John Legend (''Stay With Me''), it's a compliment to say that these well-meaning intruders barely register inasmuch as they scarcely wreck the time-machine illusion. If there's a complaint to lay down, it's that these all feel like album tracks from the Call Me/Let's Stay Together era, and you'll wait in vain for the album to arrive at its Classic Single. But let's not look a gift horse in the mouth: One of popular music's great voices is being flattered by his surroundings in a way he hasn't in a long, long time. A–
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear a preview of ''All I Need'' at amazon.com