There’s a Riot Goin’ On opens to the sounds of an urgency it desperately wants to hold on to. “Luv N’ Haight”‘s chorus is a continual climax, moving up and up and up toward something that’s just out of grasp. The bass hammers toward some indeterminate end point instead of thumping and popping around the margins of Sly’s shouts. It works in purpose with the upward swell of the backing vocals and strain of horns to suggest that this is a band with some real optimism–the kind that can play “Higher” and “Dance to the Music” with honest, unfeigned conviction. But, the climax is abandoned partway through the song, and the delirium that swirls around the edges of the entire album takes over. Purpose and clarity is lost and the song nods off into something sloppier and darker.
It’s in this tone that “Just Like a Baby,” the following track begins. A lazy day of a song, it (along with the unimpeachable groove of “Family Affair” and the caged aimlessness of “Brave and Strong”), comes close to defining There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘s ultimate theme: pretending at a happiness that can be hard to believe in.
“Just Like a Baby” is a measured and insistent song, even though it lopes drunkenly throughout, tempting the listener into imagining the whole thing unraveling at some point during five minutes of basically confident tightrope strutting. The drums and bass provide what begins as a sturdy foundation, Sly’s vocals and loose-fingered keys even helping anchor a few verses of straightforward, static-y blues.
As in the rest of the album, though, the faultlines threaten to engulf the entire song. Whispered, pained, maybe lovelorn (definitely anguished) phrases back away from the urgency they were initially filled with. Sly starts to sound like he’s about to give up partway through any number of low-throated words, instead telling the idea of clarity itself to fuck off and allowing himself simply to explore the endless textures of a tortured moan (with a little help from an uncharacteristically sedate Larry Graham).
Bridges that trade the hypnotic downbeat of the verses for brief gestures at the same kind of false optimism in “Luv N’ Haight” mosey in experimentally. The bass walks upward and the keys are chorded with a newfound, deliberate pressure. But the idea is abandoned after idle attempts and the band slumps into a more comfortable malaise, happier to accept that maybe the baby Sly keeps singing about would do better to chill out–and zone out–than try for anything more.
It would be easy here to compare “Just Like a Baby”‘s composition with the burnout trajectory of the late ’60s (Riot was released in 1971) or a prediction of the doomed, self-doped path of Sly and the Family Stone’s career, but it might be more honest to leave it on less dramatic terms. “Just Like a Baby,” as a snapshot of the band’s sound, finds it moving toward territory that, for me, will always feel more like its own than the excellent singalongs of its early years. Its rhythm is effortless and even the straightlaced drums and bass pop on the upbeats, the energy metred just enough to define the groove as a context for the vocals, not the sole purpose of the song. The warm fuzz draping the keys, the mice feet bends of the guitar, and the almost too-close proximity of the vocals keep the listener folded in close to the band even as they move into unpredictable forms. “Just Like a Baby” is a pre-cursor to the raw intimacy of soul to come, a blueprint for the expert meanderings of a Funkadelic that would see the new decade tearing at the parametres of what funk even is, and one of the saddest, most honest songs ever performed.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Bullet Points Monthly and co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast. He tweets @reidmccarter.