Maxwell?s second album, “Embrya,” feels like the culmination of the retro-soul movement that began taking shape several years ago. With fellow heavy-lidded soul man D?Angelo and self-help diva Des?ree, Maxwell ignored the developments in R&B over the last decade — new jack swing, gangsta, sampling — and aimed to return soul to a headier, more opulent era, namely the ?70s. While the likes of Montell Jordan and Usher revel in a sometimes brazen, sometimes vulgar fusion of hip-hop and old-school-soul pleading, Maxwell and his mellow cohorts aspire to bring more sensitivity, positivity, and sonic luxuriousness to modern R&B.
“Embyra” makes good on those old-school intentions. Maxwell places his songs onto a plush bed of lightly pulsating beats, wah-wah guitars, and gentle keyboards. A string section adds sensual accents; Latin inflections, like congas and the merest hint of salsa-fied horns, dart in and out. It?s the sound of a large, muted soul orchestra, with the singer?s buttery, falsetto-leaning throat just another instrument. From the sensual ?Everwanting: To Want You to Want? to the sonic body wash ?Drowndeep: Hula,? it?s beautiful R&B background music.
That said, it?s best not to read “Embrya”?s lyrics, whose lofty cosmic-bond themes are vague at best, pretentious at worst. Associating love with a religious experience is a worthy endeavor, but all too typical is a line from ?I?m You: You are Me and We Are You?: ?I?m reaching for this deep inside, this deep in me, where she resides, a higher fly as if a sky/Beyond the me/Where you will be.? Think Marvin Gaye after a weekend at a Deepak Chopra seminar.
A sensitive, new-age soul man, Maxwell wants to make music for both bedroom and brain. There?s probably never been a more modest, unassuming R&B singer. But, as with his retro-soul compatriots, it makes for a curious paradox: an introverted seduction. “Embrya” has plenty of pillow-talk moments, but you wish Maxwell would spend a little less time fluffing the pillows, and a little more time on the heat of the moment.