The deepest, darkest and quietest moment of the night calls for a supra-human voice, or more poetically, a voice that's not quite of this world. Some people might reach for Nick Drake or the angelic lacrymatics of Orbison, but for sheer and soulful comfort in a world of confusion, loneliness and heartache there is none that holds a candle to the Legendary Jimmy Scott. And he is a pure enigma, a contradictory ambivalence of a different order. He is a man for whom deep soul and directness have come at great personal cost. His voice is astounding in its beauty, reach and control, and his every nuance seems to speak of heartache and loss, and yet...
OK maybe some context is in order.
Jimmy Scott was born with Kallman's syndrome, a hormone deficiency which if untreated means the body doesn't undergo puberty. As a consequence, Jimmy's voice didn't break but stayed high and strong like a castrato. He had an early break singing with Lionel Hampton in the late 40s, and recorded a great album with Ray Charles in the producer's seat, but his career nosedived due to legalities, and didn't fully revive until the early 90s when the confluence of a David Lynch cameo and the funeral of Doc Pomus brought him back to fully recorded glory.
His voice is a wonder. Piercing and possessive, it cuts through paper and skin. Neither Lennon's wail nor Wilson's falsetto approach Jimmy in terms of distinctiveness and instant attention-grabbing. It sounds like a woman's voice — maybe an irrepressible aunt's voice, striking fear and discomfort into relatives gathered round the piano. There's a degree of the masculine in it, just a shade; but its high register is definitely beyond the ordinary [note 5]. For musical ears conditioned to regular gender-vocal norms and the occasional high-pitched male, Jimmy cuts through with otherworldly power.
The voice of a vulnerable, youngish-seeming man singing with a well-aged soul, an experience beyond years — though of course he is that aged soul, that wise old man. This unchanged voice is at variance with time somehow, in seeming to have escaped it. It has matured differently, experientially; it stands outside of time and yet is timeless in the most direct, unambiguous way.
Jimmy sings about death, loss and suffering simply by style and inflection. Once you've heard him sing (the word is too light) a ballad or jazz standard, you'll realise the power of interpretation in soul, of truly owning a lyric's content. And strangely — this must be the calling card of true soul music — his ballads make you feel better, more hopeful.
Listen to his outright ownership of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child", or the way his "Angel Eyes" carries naked emotion and broken despair to a level Sinatra could only dream of. This is a man who has been through the depths of loneliness and loss. For Frank, singing 'scuse me while I disappear' was a cue to back off the stage; for Jimmy it's damn near an existential act.
He strikes a near-absolute grace of sincerity — so total there is no space for irony or sniggering camp. Jimmy is absolutely believable; he occupies the subjective zone so completely you can't imagine him singing anything but aching, soaring ballads.
And if you thought Sinatra was a legend for his timing and phrasing, listen close. Jimmy is the master of delayed pacing: timing every enunciation to fall waaay behind the beat, drawing it to uncommon length, pitching it around his vibrato without ever once seeming delayed or dragging the rhythm. It's a technique that serves to focus listener attention solely on the words and soul of the voice. Hence he's most comfortably at home in the slow ballad where there's room to set up these subtle gaps for the attention to fall into. Technically, it's all sewn up and connected: the effeminate voice, the freakishly skilled technique, and the soul import of heartbreaking balladry.
If you're investigating his records I'd suggest working your way backwards from the pristine modern albums like All the Way, to the solitary 70s masterpiece The Source, and then the (thankfully reissued) Falling in Love is Wonderful, which is 50s Jimmy at his most penetrating and incisive.
With his nurtured phrasing and complete immersion in a song, with that sublime androgynously clear voice, you might still miss out on the visual magnetism and intense focus of his performing style. So personal and performative, singing from the deepest, private heart, with everyone in the audience hanging on to every note.
Such rare genius, such rare and total feel for the material, such faultless execution.
Jimmy's heartbreakingly simple lesson: it all comes from the soul. The broken, suffering, but hopeful soul. And his humble beauty as a person comes, partly, from an intelligence born of that suffering: an articulate, moving, generous man who has been to the ends of suffering and still maintains an absolute grace in singing it.
Jimmy makes conversions. From heartbreak, for hope. That's gotta be true spirit.
Here's to us, one more toast and then we'll pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill...
In our lives we have walked some strange and lonely treks
Slightly worn but dignified and not too old for sex.
One of us is crying, one of us is lying in her lonely bed...
One of us is only waiting for a call.
Bear in mind: this is the first Bon Iver album I’ve heard in full. I’ve given one or two Emma tracks a listen (especially “Flume”), but no further. So I’d known about the falsetto style, without building up too much expectation of follow-up consistency (and/or disappointment) with the difficult second album. Usually I get bugged by whole albums sung in falsetto, but not here. And I’ve got the gist that Emma is acoustic to Bon Iver’s electric-eclectic. But also, I’m not setting out to defend it per se; nor am I gunning a personal view in the swampy relativism of subjective resonance. What I hear is what I hear.
“Perth” was the first track I’d cued up and didn’t process the rest for a good while. I remember the odd structure of the song: unstandard. With a nice guitar refrain, the horns etc. See an earlier note about electric guitars and song structure in the post-rock vein (detail: Mogwai). How difficult it can be to come up with interesting song formats using electric guitar chords & sounds, the usual familiar structures. “Perth” is a leftfield piece of interesting. At the time I thought: better than the usual Pitchfork hay.
I do think the album deserves an award for its mix. The overlaid vocals, yes; but also the sonic detail and colour, the rounded sense of depth. Banjos and steel guitar, fuzzed low guitar on track #2. The bee-buzz of saxes on “Holocene” (track #2). The tremolo piano on “Hinnom” (track #6). And reverse echo effects on “Wash” (track #7). Yet it’s a very gentle holistic mix.
The album’s sound is its strongest suit methinks; and also its consistency to that sound-frame. I can hear how much work went into it (especially vocal overdubs and mixing), the collaborations etc, but to me it doesn’t sound encumbered or overcrowded. Not every richly-worked and -elaborated album garners automatic respect in a listener. I still hear the work of careful choices being made.
But did you notice there’s no bass on the album? Well – baritone guitar here and there, but not the usual trio arrangement of guitars drums bass. Notice how the songs don’t really need standard old bass. But the mix is what makes me want to get this on CD so I can hear it in full stereo. I’m a big believer in the power of the mix.
There aren’t many radio-friendly melodies here; nor is it a glorified solo album. It’s a different beast.
It definitely feels like a meaningful album, of a kind. I had a realisation (listening in the car, in rainy slow traffic) that a songwriter’s job is to marry feeling to music. Or to work some magic so the feel causes the structure to melt away (feel over chords). Now, many if not all of the lyrics on Bon Iver don’t seem to stick or penetrate, but I can’t say they lack feeling or vibe. I don’t mind the lyric floatiness; I’m not expecting “Dylanesque” depth on this. That said, playing in the car, the words become falsetto sounds and melodies – except for the phrase “shoulder blades” (from “Calgary”) which sticks out at an odd angle. We now call it the ‘shoulder blade song’.
That said, I haven’t read the lyrics too closely. I suspect they’re a marriage of creative writing exercises to song-feels. Let’s take some random snips; this from “Holocene”:
Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.
Above my brother, I and tangled spines.
We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be.
Now to know it my memory.
Or this from “Towers”:
For the love, comes the burning young
From the liver, sweating through your tongue
Well, you're standing on my sternum don't you climb down darling
Oh the sermons are the first to rest
Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed
Out the hollows where the swallow nests.
To me these are personal scrapbookings. I suspect they’re more related to memories and local-specific associations than to lyric truths that must out. You can find more speculation on the latter song here.
From my initial listens and cursory checks, there’s no clear sense of what these songs are about. But the album does seem to navigate a direction or focus on intimacy and homeliness, some inner terrain or past. A raftered melancholy? A sound of place perhaps. And yes, the album does sound fantastic on a gray prolonged Sunday morning drive*. It’s a good wintry album**.
“Calgary” (track #8) is a strong point – even if it is heavy on keys and overdubs. This track would also work acoustic-only, I think. But again, as with “Perth” – what structure is he following here? I haven’t pulled out the guitar and applied myself to finding out – but the structure sounds purely musical rather than chord chord chord familiar. Which is a good thing; it makes for interesting.
“Beth/Rest” (track #10) – yes, perhaps an unfortunate choice in keys as they dial up 80s frequencies. Or maybe this track is a personal reference, a reverential tuning into 80s youth or past subjectives. Sonically, it doesn’t sound out of place at all – the same mix colours, even down to the steel guitar. I know a few similar/ballpark tracks to this, with flutes and keys and lead guitar fills; and I was put in mind of Peter Tosh’s “Fools Die” in particular, strangely; which is also an album closer. Also, my version of the album ends with a different mix of “Calgary”, so the 80s episode isn’t the closer, which might be why it sounds aggravating or deliberately daft to some.
I wouldn’t say every track is a winner, but each has at least some interesting detail or sonic figure to mark it. Justin Vernon is a very musical, atypical songwriter. And the mix: the mix feels correct and nuanced to me. I agree or I can hear all the issues people have with the album, but to me it feels right and carefully balanced and well sequenced and emotionally valid, over and above those concerns. Or at least, that’s the view from my particular node of subjective resonance.
* Note: I’m not someone who believes all albums sound better in cars or on road trips.
** Boom boom.
I had a few Twitter chats with a kind person at UQP, because I wanted to send them a *free* copy of my book. You know the one. They wrote back saying Sure, but don't expect anything in return (read: consideration for publishing). I said, no, I know you don't publish much of this kind of writing anyway. Sure, I just want to send it in the spirit of a gift. If you know someone who's into music writing, make them a gift of it.
And so I typed a nice cover letter with the above sentiment repeated, and posted it along to the publisher. They have a good rep and list; I thought: they might enjoy quality writing.
And then, about 6 weeks later, I get the book back in the mail. With a note:
While we appreciate the spirit in which this gift was given, we would like to return it to you so that others may have the same opportunity to enjoy it.Now, isn't that a) not the spirit of receiving a gift (which I had clearly er, laboured over), b) slightly rude as well, and c) just a bit lame?
Yes, I know, they're in publishing and probably receive a massive pile of slush in the mail and can't possibly afford the effort of reading it all. But to send a gift back to the sender (unread too), in contradiction of the spirit of it, that just galls me a little bit. They could've quietly recycled it and not bother with the return postage.
This odd little episode confirms a few prejudices which I've been forming about the publishing industry, mostly along the lines of PR and perception. But mostly it confirms how incredibly hard it is to get anyone to read anything at all.
How does a piece of shit like Mx (free local street press / gossip rag / Facebook-in-tabloid form) manage to get so much attention and eyeball interaction? Oh, yes, it's a piece of shit, that's why. Gossip and web trash and fashion police make the media go round.
It's perhaps a far-fetched analogy, but I'll let it dangle.
For the criticism to work, there has to be a tacit agreement by the reader to the central thesis and the central thesis that "the goal of good music is to become pure feeling" rings true to me. These essays are concerned not just with how feeling are generated on a technical level, but how they fit into the scheme of things.Read more on the Song Logic Amazon page.
If you liked the book, or if you begged to differ on a few points, or even felt outright that every single sentence rang silly and untrue, then by all means pen your own review and air your thoughts! I'd love to hear either way.
Extempore is one of the few - no, the only Australian journal focusing on writing about jazz and improvised music. Worth supporting for that reason alone. I'd also recommend signing up for their newsletter - because they're also running a giveaway of the book in that. Totally great.
My thanks to Miriam Zolin for setting up the content-share. Plenty more where that came from.
Listen to a sample of Song Logic tracks on Grooveshark now.
I have to thank Bosco for the idea; over the course of some fine Pho he came up with the perfect idea. Some people have heard an earlier mix of tracks; but now you can stream them anywhere.
If you like it, let me know! I can add a lot more tracks to the playlist. I can get exhaustive and detail every track mentioned in the book... for an ultimate reading companion.
Check out another happy Song Logic reader (no, it's not Franzen):
It's Wes Montgomery's birthday today, and a lot of great tunes were played, including a cut from Bags Meets Wes which I'm gonna research right now.
Thanks Knox, and hooray for 4ZZZ! You guys rock at 102.1 FM.
And fellow blogger Katie has sent a nice action shot. It all makes me a happy author.
Hi, my name is Rino and I’m somewhat of a punctuation nerd. There’s one character I’m really mad for — the one character that floats my grammatic boat — and that’s the em dash. It’s the punctuation mark par excellence. Better than the colon or parentheses. Typographically elegant; functionally useful; and interpolative in the best prosaic sense. Used to mark an amplifying or explanatory element, or an interruption. Also for rhetorical pause: Darth Vader's line "I sense something, a presence I have not felt since—" And, to indicate a change of speaker in French novels and Joyce.
As wide as the letter m — and sometimes even wider depending on typeface. There’s also a 2-em rule if you really want to break in and score the text with a big, mean line.
I get a bit huffy when I see the lame use of double-dashes on a web page -- so ugly and scattered, like morse code in the middle of a sentence. Ummm, well, I don’t know how to make the proper em dash character, so I just ummm use the dash key. Just get into the html and paste:
— and presto, you’re sorted. Get it right, mmmkay?
But this is preamble — what I wanted to say is that I did a count and Song Logic has a shining total of 470 em dashes. Of which I am very proud.