What's Going On is an album of beautiful despair, told from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returned to a country on the wrong path. The album, which was a departure for Marvin Gaye (and his reluctant record company, which was known as a hit factory), dealt with many issues that had been bubbling just below the surface of a forgotten American dream. Poverty, joblessness, and environmental issues were a far cry from Heard it Trough the Grapevine, but Gaye was not feeling terribly hopeful and cheery in 1970. His duet partner Tammi Terrell had just died and other factors of fame had sent him into a deep depression.
The titular track is by far the album's most popular, but it's a great experience to listen to it in its entirety as each song bleeds into the next. Considered revolutionary and praised as a soul masterpiece, it's actually a somewhat subdued and simple album that derives its power from the strength of its subject, Gaye's captivating voice, and the layers of orchestration.
While I consider the album one of despair, and it seems that that's the way he was feeling when making it, there's a sense of, if not hope than at least a quiet ambition to try to make the world a better place. In many ways, as lots of the problems Gaye addressed become worse, it's still a powerfully relevant piece today.