Jazz fans may be familiar with "Where Are We Going?" from Donald Byrd's 1973 album Black Byrd. The first of his albums for the Blue Note label, it became a pioneering work in the jazz funk genre and one of Blue Note Records' bestselling releases. However, Marvin Gaye also recorded the Larry Mizell/Larry Gordon composition for a planned album entitled You're the Man. The project was ultimately shelved, but a compilation of songs intended for that album as well as other outtakes were recently released to celebrate Gaye's 80th birthday. Lyrically, the track fits perfectly with What's Going On, retaining a jazzier feel but leaning heavily toward R&B.
A piano riff dances in the background, taking the place of the trumpet dominant in the Byrd version. Marvin's sweet, pure voice masks the dark words behind the lyrics. "Where Are We Going?" paints a picture of apathy, of people becoming inured to injustice and inequality. He mentions homeless sleeping in the streets, war persisting as "day by day the work gets done." Similar to "What's Going On," Gaye cries out for help. "Where are we going / Oh, what's the future showin'?" he asks, adding "with all that's going on where are we gettin'? Yet life moves on, with Gaye next lamenting the teenage pregnancy rate. "Day by day babies' babies are born," he cries, yet "day by day, people say 'right on,'" clearly burying their heads in the sand.
The bridge, which sounds remarkably similar to "What's Going On," attempts to solve the problem. "All we need," the backing vocals chant, with Gaye's voice rising in his patented falsetto. "Harmony" appears to be the answer, with the singer reaching the upper ranges of his voice to deliver the message. The instrumental break most resembles Byrd's version, with a lone trumpet delivering a breezy solo.
As "Where Are We Going?" draws to a close, Gaye suggests that increasing activism may wake people from their stupor. "Day in, day out / It gets better, the people shout / Day by day flames get higher," he declares, referring to various revolutions still raging in 1972 (namely civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and anti-war sentiment). Perhaps these actions represent the "harmony" Gaye refers to during the bridge. In any case, everyone needs to work together to create solutions and end indifference towards others' plights.
Consistent with his other work, "Where Are We Going?" symbolizes Gaye's willingness to expand the boundaries of soul. Combining elements of jazz, R&B, and pop, Gaye's transcendent voice served as an agent for change in soul music. His versatility shines on this track, but his ability to deliver serious messages in a gorgeous, almost sensual way remains a distant Gaye characteristic.
Indeed, the track would have fit the What's Going On album perfectly, as it touches upon many themes expressed in that masterwork. It may have sounded too similar to that title track in both topic and sound. Yet "Where Are We Going?" addresses issues still relevant today, and the ambiguous ending challenges listeners to transition from passive to active agents for change.