From deep roots come many branches. And no roots go deeper than those of black music in this country. But with few exceptions, the products of those roots—blues, gospel, jazz, soul, R&B, funk, rap—have existed as solitary limbs unto themselves. Black radio has come to jealously proclaim which individual branch it holds up for public adoration. And in the desert days of the late ’80s, when R&B had already begun its fatal slide into the type of assembly-line ooze currently congesting the airwaves, just laying claim to a diverse musical lineage was enough to get you labeled a heretic. That’s what I dug about Corey Glover’s band Living Color. They were cats so out that they were willing to risk blasphemy in the name of creating original music.

The group, a central element of the Black Rock Coalition, produced music that was unequivocably rock, but it was rock informed by a distinct funk sensibility. With the dissolution of the band in the wake of 1993’s uninspired Time’s Up, the ex-members have all but scattered to the four winds. Glover’s Hymns—co-produced, ironically enough, by Babyface—marks the return of an exiled front man. The connection to LaFace, however, doesn’t imply that Glover has been tragically siphoned into the same florid pop sounds that Face has made so magnetic.

Left to his own devices, Glover has delved into different, distinct parts of the black music canon. Glover initiates the listener with “Hymn 1017,” a morose prose poem that speaks of artificial existence in a dead city.

Musically, Glover leads with the deceptively Living Color-esque tale of love at point-blank range titled “Do You First, Then Do Myself.” He fairly growls the trigger-finger query: “Tell me what it is you fear/My gypsy pussy willow dear.” But the opener is deceptive precisely because it is the only time you get a clear moment of musical déjà vu. For Hymns, soul is the central frame of reference, a starting point on a journey that is altogether more introspective, even brooding, than the classic irreverence of Living Color. Hymns borders, in fact, on being a soul album—albeit a slightly edgier variant. The consistent references to pain and love make it clear that Glover is attempting to find a degree of catharsis in the span of 12 tracks.

The pointed lament of “April Rain,” brings to mind Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” and is more fluid. Perhaps more than any other track on the release, “Rain” showcases the singularity of Glover’s coarse tenor. “Little Girl” is a soul record bearing Al Green’s vocal fingerprints, making clear that where Glover is concerned, love isn’t a hydra rearing its ugly head, but a lost friend to be mourned. And who better than Al Green to choose as a mentor on this score? More than anyone else, Green spoke to the dead-end sorrow of a man realizing that a good woman is about to leave his sorry ass. To Glover’s credit, even on cuts like “Little Girl,” where Green’s influence shines through, the originality of his voice is enough to demand engaged listening. By the time he launches into “Things Are Getting in the Way,” he’s conducting vocals over a scaffolding of blues-inflected harmonica.

The element of lament finds its deepest, most evocative expression in “One,” a searing reminiscence in which Glover sings, “One chance is all, one time only/And if the sun doesn’t call, I had one time.” And lest you believe that all his lyrical cleverness dissolved with Living Color, the insistent, keyboard-driven “Sermon” offers a shrewd game of musical identities, with lyrics that mix the profane and sacred, blending brimstone imagery with crucifixion references—underscored by diabolical guitar licks that tempt you to believe Glover has gotten hold of Satan’s own guitarist and made him do his bidding.

The opaque metaphor of “Lowball Express” tells of “synthetic rapture,” a song that I’m sure only Glover could fully decode, but for my instincts, his allusions work the same way that Marvin Gaye’s “Flying high in the friendly sky,” spoke of the terrorism of a heroin jones.

Speaking volumes on what is not being said, “Silence” is sparsely constructed, piano-led. It is the sound of resolution, or maybe resignation. Backed by a gospel chorus intoning the title, Glover could sever your aorta when he cries, “It’s not about the pain/It ain’t the violence/It’s the silence.”

If Hymns is any measure, these five years away from the public eye have served him well—the new work ranks among the more profound listening experiences I’ve had in the past year. The diversity of styles represented on the CD is probably the result of a changing roster of musicians who contribute to each song, but Glover manages to create an almost uniformly sharp aesthetic. The roots go deep. And the fruit don’t fall far from the tree. CP

More from WCP