Sunday, 9 January 2011

Roberta Flack - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (1972/ No. 14/ 14 weeks/ Atlantic)
I always get a tremendous sense of darkness from this performance. When I say darkness, I don't mean darkness as in it being edgy or disturbing but a literal, dead-of-night-in-the-middle-of-the-countryside, darkness. Roberta Flack's voice seems to appear out of a velvet black nothing, allowing the listeners' imagination to see the beloved face for the first time. It is a privilege for the listener to be sung to as this lover, and time seems to stop for as long as the record lasts.
The folk origin of the song (written by Ewan MacColl, who hated Flack's version, the old curmudgeon) gives it a sense of simplicity that befits the intimacy and importance of the material. This isn't a song that you can perform clever multiple readings of, or one filled with funky allusions. Every metaphor (barring one, the only similie) relates the sense of love and wonderment to the natural world; the sun rising, moon, stars, sky... eventually leading to a love as natural as the movement of the earth and the passing of time.
With such unadorned and easily-assimilated lyrics, the music can take its time to build up a mood of devotion and be extraordinarily quiet. For the first two and a quarter minutes the instrumentation in its entirety consists of Flack's piano, an acoustic guitar, and some brushed cymbals, creating a still and contemplative sound-picture - a rocking cradle in an otherwise silent room. Roberta Flack certainly knew how to hold a note gloriously, and like Isaac Hayes - her 1969 contemporary on Atlantic Records - she gives herself the time to emphasise every single word of the song;
The first time
ever I saw your face
I thought the sun
rose in your eyes
(indeed, like the sun, her whole voice rises with hope and vulnerability in that "rose in your eyes"...)
And the moon
and stars
were the gifts you gave
(note the particular echoing cadence on both "sun and "moon")
To the dark
and the endless skies... my love.
To the dark
and the endless skies.
As the second verse moves from seeing the lover to being with him, new details are added, implicating the listener deeper into the singer's feelings;
And the first time
ever I kissed your mouth
(Appropriately enough, there's something particularly oral about Flack's phrasing of "kissed your mouth")
To signify this deeper and indelible involvement, some new instrumentation comes in here in the form of an enormous brooding cello chord;
I felt the earth
move in my hand
Like the trembling heart
of a captive bird
(a little haze of violins make themselves heard here, upon the mention of the bird. I sometimes find that line slightly jarring - but in a purposeful way - iterating just how much of herself the singer is giving)
That was there
at my command... my love
In the third verse, of course, the love is consummated. You really appreciate the time and care that the song has taken to reach this point, as the emotion is so intense and personal;
And the first time
ever I lay with you
I felt your heart
so - close to mine -
And I knew
our joy
would fill the earth
And last till the end of time... my love
It would last till the end of time... my love
And so the two lovers not only become one, but become at one with the world, losing their fear of mortality. Although Roberta Flack's tender reading of the song carries an immense, cumulative, sense of developing drama within it, Johnny Cash's almost unbearable deathbed version reminds us that it is sung in the past tense and is about memory - albeit uncannily true and right-seeming memories.
Such a recording carries about as great a sense of intimacy as is possible in a song (and is, of course, open to abuse, as the single's use by a stalker in the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me reminds us). This vulnerable realisation of sensations of devotion, awe, and a sense of place in the world, makes 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' feel as humble - and as true - as any love song in the canon to me.

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