Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Cilla Black - Surround Yourself With Sorrow (1969/ No. 3/ 12 weeks/ Parlophone)

Is their any figure in British pop history more unfairly maligned than Cilla Black? Admittedly, her lorra lorra 1980s incarnation as the face of LWT on Surprise Surprise and Blind Date might cast a retrospective shadow, but you only really need to listen to the records to forget that. Amongst stupider people, she seems to be condemned for the sin of not being Dusty Springfield, as if to admit the one into the rock canon, she had to have an obviously inferior rival. In fact, these are two of the greatest of pop voices, each unique and distinctive, leading the listener into a particular way of seeing and responding to the world. Cilla's voice is breathy and soft, and always seems to me to switch between vulnerability, hope and retreat into the self from line to line.

'Surround Yourself With Sorrow' is an impressively doomy song, somewhere between heartbreak and emotional blankness, buoyed along by an incongruously jaunty arrangement. A morse cose siren, a whirlwind of strings and a brass fanfare set up a verse that is not as euphoric as you might have been led to expect;

Watch the water falling down
Falling down outside your head
You do your best to turn the tide
But can't forget ev'rythin' he said
The pressure's getting far too great
The word together came too late

The singer against the world, powerless to affect external circumstances, be they the rain, the tide, or the perfidy of men. The idea of the observing but powerless head continues in the second verse ("Like a neon in your head/ The neon's flashing off and on/ Recalling ev'rything he said'). The chorus is both emphatic and ambiguous;

What do you do when your love breaks up?
Do you fall apart like a butter cup?
Forget about tomorrow (!/ ?)
Surround yourself with sorrow (!/ ?)

I couldn't tell you if the third and fourth lines are questions or decisions, if the singer is telling herself to pull herself out of this mood of desolate blankness or stay in it. It takes an exceptionally subtle and vulnerable voice to pull off an ambiguity like this. One of the great pop stars of her time, in fact.

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