Posthumous albums maintain a paradoxical relationship to critical acclaim. In this noble pursuit (the act of exposing others to new sounds) it would seem as if these purveyors of art would be in the proper position to deliver something wholly dynamic. Herein lies the problem:
In presenting this work, you do so without the actual artist—an obvious, but significant point. An album without the artist is a body without the head; there is no direction and very little purpose. Abstractly, we’re left with these well-intentioned pieces of blasphemy. More specifically, we’re left with people “finishing” Michael Jackson vocals or Cornell Haynes, Jr. dropping a verse next to Christopher Wallace. Imagine someone painting a sweater onto a crucifix because they think Jesus looks “chilly.” It’s all very admirable, but wildly inappropriate. When handled properly, however, these albums can have an invaluable appeal.
This is what crosses my mind as I listen to the recently released Jimi Hendrix project, People, Hell & Angels. On a very basic level, this album can be understood as a collection of unreleased material recorded between March 1968 and August 1970. What it is not–and this is important—is a focused and fully actualized endeavor. The songs are most likely unfinished compositions. And considering Hendrix legal freedom, there is a fairly high possibility that they came from sessions booked with no actual end goal. Like I said, these sorts of undertakings are done so without the guidance of the pilot. And that’s significant when attempting to situate this album around any sort of sound critique.
People, Hell & Angels lives in a space far outside the realm of typical discussion. It just doesn’t work that way. This is a hodgepodge of recordings, built around a period of time in the life of Jimi Hendrix. Nothing more. The worth of this album—and I hesitate to even call it that—goes far beyond the standard appreciation we all have for quality music. This is a history book in D major. People, Hell & Angels is a crystal ball telling the story of what could have been, but never was.
To understand People, Hell & Angels, you must first understand Electric Ladyland. Even a superficial listen to the 1968 classic will make you fall in love. This was Hendrix showcasing his unbridled style of genius. There wasn’t necessarily a specific genre at play as much as an eclectic approach to American music. Take for example a comparison of “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The former begat the latter and yet the two have drastically different sonic trajectories. “Voodoo Chile” clocks in at slightly over fifteen minutes. It’s basically an old school jam session. And if we’re being even more specific, “Voodoo Chile” is the blues. Drawling organs, effervescent storytelling, overdriven guitar sounds—it’s all there.
On the other hand, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” while structurally built atop a blues framework, carries hard rock aggression with the solo virtuosity of acid rock. We are taken two completely different places from the exact same starting point. That’s Electric Ladyland.
What we get from People, Hell & Angels is a continuation of the story. It tells us where Jimi was going. And what we’ve learned can be best described as “everything and absolutely nothing.” If these songs were to be further developed into the follow-up to Electric Ladyland, it’s pretty obvious that Hendrix had no intentions of confining his sound.
Early on in the album, we get the sonic equivalent of tripping the lights fantastic courtesy of “Somewhere.” It’s a heroin track in 1970s New York. The psychedelic groove should be betrayed by the boisterous timbre of Hendrix dominant guitar play, but somehow it works. Each moment of wistful bliss is coupled with an instrumental intensity, reflecting a proper journey through an engagement of illegalities. We’ve gotten this sort of recording from Hendrix in the past and yet it still seems incredibly fresh.
“No letter today…mot even a call on my telephone…”
What the lyrics lack in depth, they make up for in sincerity. But there is simply no greater cry than that of a wailing guitar and Jimi knows how to emote. Like “Voodoo Chile,” this is the blues.
Written By: Paul Pennington