If poignancy is beauty plus pain, then this is full on wreckage and redemption.
The disconnect between this song and the reality of its creation is now complete, which was always the intention – the overall effect was supposed to be a disguise or a cover-up, smothering anguish between the sheets. It became a kind of brand icon: unavoidable, both consummation and joke. When you hear it now it is hard not to see Wayne and Waynetta snogging through filth and fags with bits of pasty stuck between their teeth. But when this hit it was a smoochy smash and it is impossible to listen to it and not understand how immediate and inevitable that would be. Marvin, almost alone in the studio with decades of amazing music and era-grabbing songs behind him, must have been amazed himself: I’ve made another one. He made it sound so easy!
It was and it wasn’t.
First. There is some debate about the origin of this song. In 1981 Gaye was in debt and addicted to cocaine, sadomasochistic pornography and prostitutes. The recording of his previous album In Our Lifetime had devolved into a bitter dispute with Motown. It limped out, in re-dubbed form, to public indifference, and was disowned by Gaye (it has some decent and weird moments but unlike Here, My Dear it is no lost classic). In the midst of this physical, psychological and artistic decay, music critic David Ritz, appalled by Gaye’s tastes and predicament, told him he needed some “sexual healing”. Whether this story is true or not it makes more sense than most of the other claims (it became a lawsuit) because ‘Sexual Healing’ does not truly drag Gaye out of the dirt even though it superficially aspires to.
Second. Gaye had escaped Motown, but the fallout was immense. Signed to CBS, his new bosses basically locked him in a studio with Gordon Banks and a bunch of new gear. This was forced punishment but also an artistic escape that partly redeemed him. Banks said: “It was basically him and I in the studio. Columbia Records gave him some new toys to play with. They gave him two drum machines, a synthesizer called a Roland TR-808 and a Jupiter 8. Marvin didn't know too much about technology so it was my job to figure out how to get the stuff working. He kind of liked the sounds that came from it and he went from there.” The album sounds just like this, too: a weird mix of casual lo-fi synthesizer experiments, occasional fussy overdubs and expensive session musicians, a bit like McCartney II. It doesn’t sound as much as it actually cost: a lot of the cash was swallowed by the sporadic studio sessions. Gaye was still fucked up and wandering.
There is no doubt that ‘Sexual Healing’ itself is the one outstanding products of this phase – nothing else he did in the 1980s comes close. Strip away the years of radio rotation and descent into parody, strip away the lyrics, and you are left with beautifully layered synth-pop: there is a detailed poignancy to the track, with an undertow of pure melancholy, a sound texture that creates switches and shards of tone, verging on sonic Pointillism. Add the lyrics back onto this and it becomes something else again: something much weirder than the lingerie and flowers clichés we now respond to. This song is born out of despair, that much is clear (“I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising”), and the remedy is to pick up the phone to get whatever it is she’s “dealing” – a proper fuck, maybe for money. He’s “sick” he declares, and she is “my medicine”: “open up and let me in” he implores, “I can’t wait for you to operate.” He extends the medical metaphor and it’s just off, unpleasant: the sexuality is half-dead, certainly diseased, but can be cured by sex as medication or a surgical operation, basically reducing to his personal, default requirements of the time (drugs, pornography, hookers).
This kind of mechanical and damaged approach to sensuality and seduction is the undertone of the entire album. ‘Til Tomorrow’ is a good example of this, a ballad made out of synthesizers and saxophone that Gaye somehow makes sound as flat and queasy as possible. It perfectly captures the expensively tacky early Eighties romantic ideals: rose petals scattered over black satin sheets, silk underwear and red lace, champagne in crystal flutes and lines of coke chopped out on glass table tops in rooms decorated with pastel stucco and Art Deco panels. It sounds horrible, sleazy, ill, creepy, like something out of The New York Ripper. It’s a conceptualization of sex which matches the most obvious ideals and routines of the time, but exposes their corrupt instincts and damaged impulses.
Hanging over Midnight Love and ‘Sexual Healing’ is the future, and this is where the poignancy and excess becomes unbearable: not just in terms of what happened next to Gaye, but what happened to everyone. From the healthy shag pile of Let’s Get It On to the corrupt seduction of Midnight Love, Gaye’s idea and aesthetic of sexual liberation, borne of the Sixties, would be damaged irreparably by AIDS. Its shadow falls back over this album, and makes the sexual statements being made on it even bleaker. Through a retrospective lens, the medical metaphor Gaye uses on ‘Sexual Healing’ becomes darkly ironic and gruesomely articulate.