Thursday, 6 January 2011

Nina Simone - To Love Somebody (1969/ No. 5/ 9 weeks/ RCA)

There's a light
A certain kind of light
It's never shone on me...

Much as I admire the Bee Gees, I do often find their records emotionally problematic, encouraging me to respond to them as diverting pop artifacts rather than as songs. Frequently a line will stop me in my tracks, and I'll get lost in thinking "Well, what on earth was that supposed to mean?", and I'll then lose my thread of emotional engagement for a little while.

I want my whole liife to be
Lived with you
Lived with you

Which is emphatically NOT the case with this cover version. Could any performance ever be more direct? Nina Simone reduces the song to its bare bones, transforming it from a crafted structure of verses and choruses into what feels like an elemental force of want and need.

There's a way
Everybody say
Do each and every little thing
But what good does it bring?
If I ain't got you?
BACKING SINGERS: If I ain't got you!
If I ain't got you?
BACKING SINGERS: If I ain't got you!

In the unlikely event that my mother was ever introduced to Nina Simone, I am in no doubt that her verdict would have been that she had met what she would classify as "a difficult woman". There's a degree of life experience that goes into this performance that you don't need to know the biography to get (though the biography is worth reading!) But, crucially, it's the voice of a middle-aged woman who knows how to deal with suffering. The singer's tone is always slightly unexpected here. You think that you've heard an angry record, but then when you return to it, the moments where you thought that the anger erupted then turn out to be something else;

In my brain
See your face again...
I know my frame of mind
You ain't got to be so blind...
And I'm blind so blind

(The delivery of every line here manages to anticipate the way that the feeling is then developed in the next one. The voice opens up with "See your face again", but the infection is also one of bitter self-knowledge, a mood then accentuated in the self-deprecating "I know my frame of mind", the rather cumbersome expression phrased ironically. "You ain't GOT to be so blind" turns a slightly knowing scorn onto the unattainable other, but the suffering intonation is then turned inwards with redoubled force on the repeated "blind". This is acute stuff!)

But I'm a woman
Can't you see what I am?
I live and breathe for you
What good does it do?

The arrangement of this is very strange. Although it has to act primarily as support for the singer, if you heard this as an instrumental, you wouldn't call it pop at all, more like improv-jazz. Its led by great heavy drum rolls, crashes and occasional tinkles. All other instrumentation comes in broken shards, bobbing up to the surface and then disappearing. The elements of pop orchestration, the strings and brass, are only an erratic presence, making this operate as a pop ballad while reminding you that it doesn't sound much like one.

You don't know
What it's like

There's a paradoxical discrepancy between the two versions. If somebody spoke to you as they do in the Bee Gees original, you'd find them rather trying company, their words in part a strategy, hamstrung by a self-conscious awareness of the impression that the speaker must be giving to the listener, the pleading tone likely to make you snap "Oh, just get over yourself!" Put the same words in Nina Simone's mouth, however, and they start to become actively intimidating, something that you'd have to deal with immediately, and unless you were of equivalent strong-will - and I'm not sure that anybody else is! - probably submit to.

Baby you don't know
What it's like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you

An astonishing, unavoidable performance.

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