Editors’ NotesExodus opens with a warning: “Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die/Don’t ask me why/Things are not the way they used to be.” You can see where Marley was coming from: In the few years leading up to the album’s recording in early 1977, Jamaica had experienced a tremendous swell in political violence, with gang and paramilitary groups affiliated with the country’s two main parties—the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party—killing each other in triple-digit numbers. Marley, who had already ascended to a kind of godlike neutrality, had stepped in to try and alleviate the mood with the Smile Jamaica Concert shortly before the country’s elections in December 1976, only to be shot during a home invasion two days before the show. He played anyway.
What you hear on Exodus, then, is the tension between the hope that every little thing will be all right and the creeping worry that it won’t. Marley recorded the album during a self-imposed exile in London, a distance that cast his optimism about Jamaica in a cautious light. And while his politics had never been of more public interest, the album’s most uplifting songs turned inward toward matters personal, romantic, and spiritual: “Three Little Birds,” the lovelorn “Waiting in Vain,” the legacy-defining “One Love.”
The overall feeling is one of victory through detente, of private peace as a foil for public rancor. As for the band, they remained borderline-peerless not only in the province of reggae, but also of funk, soul, and whatever Venn diagram you could make of the three. (No group of musicians has ever sounded so precise while being in so little of a hurry.) And while Marley’s populism rippled through punk, the Wailers maintained their own simmering intensity, abstractly on “Natural Mystic” and “Jamming,” directly on “Punky Reggae Party,” where Marley finds his inner hardcore kid a few years before the term was invented: “Rejected by society/Treated with impunity/Protected by my dignity/I search for reality.”