With its ’70s R&B moves and Afro-haircut-centric vibe, Maxwell’s 1996 debut, Urban Hang Suite, wore its old school on its sleeve. Embrya, his follow-up album, wants to take us to an even higher ground. The first track, listed at 00, is in fact a printed poem (something about the birth of “the next trinity of beings,” complete with science-fiction overtones) that we’re meant to read before we listen to the record. In true concept-album style, all the songs circle around themes of romantic-spiritual renewal, nearly every cut bolstering its point with a subhead (“Gravity: Pushing to Pull,” “Submerge: Til We Become the Sun”). In the course of only two albums, Maxwell has vaulted from wanting to re-create the mood of vintage soul to wanting to make his own combination of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

Embrya is the culmination of the retro-soul movement that began taking shape several years ago. Maxwell, fellow heavy-lidded soul men D’Angelo and Tony Rich, and self-help diva Des’ree ignored the developments in R&B over the last decade—new jack swing, gangsta rap, wholesale sampling—and aimed to return soul to a headier, more opulent era. New jackers like 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, though, aspire to bring more candlelight, positivity, and sonic luxuriousness to modern R&B.

Embrya makes good on those intentions. Maxwell places his songs and malleable croon on a plush bed of lightly pulsating beats, wah-wah guitars, and caressing keyboards. A string section adds sensual accents; Latin inflections, like congas and the hint of salsa-fied horns, dart in and out. That said, you barely notice individual players. What Maxwell has created is the sound of a large, muted soul orchestra, with the singer’s buttery, falsetto-leaning throat serving as just another instrument.

On first listens, the overall effect is numbing, since nearly every track is arranged with the same fluid grooves. But some songs are deceptively hooky, especially the sensual come-on “Everwanting: To Want You to Want” and the sonic body wash “DrownDeep: Hula” (containing a subtle, gone-Hawaiian guitar hook). Beautiful R&B background music, Embrya is the album a less psychologically burdened George Michael should have made after Faith.

Not that Maxwell doesn’t have issues of his own. It’s best not to spend too much time analyzing 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 of the album is this 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.” And that is where, exactly?

Maxwell is more clear-eyed when his topics are specific. For instance, he ponders marriage over one-night stands (“Matrimony: Maybe You”) and wonders how much he should reveal to a lover at the risk of hurting himself (“Know These Things: Shouldn’t You”). Think Marvin Gaye after spending a weekend at a Deepak Chopra seminar.

A sensitive, New Age soul man, Maxwell wants to make music for bedroom and brain. (Even “Everwanting,” with its suggestive refrain of “I’m giving all I’ve got, every drop,” is supposedly about God.) He keeps his voice at a simmer; there’s probably never been a more unassuming R&B singer. But, as with his retro-soul compatriots, this makes for a curious paradox: an introverted seduction. Like Teddy Pendergrass, Maxwell wants to turn off the lights, and Embrya has plenty of pillow-talk moments. At times, though, you wish Maxwell would spend a little less time fluffing the frilly pillows and shopping for the right candles, and a little more time on the heat of the moment. B+

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