People love Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt because of the timing; that video, his wife had died – then Johnny died shortly after. Complications resulting from a broken heart. It’s a good song, a good version. But the original is better. I know I’m not alone in thinking that – but it seems the cover version is the accepted classic now.
Another (valid) reason for the Cash version meaning so much to so many people is that Johnny knew how to sing songs blue – he knew how to make that weary, worried tone own the song; regardless of authorship Cash became the new master of the tune. His American Recordings albums were the reason so many people, late in life (both theirs and his) really warmed to Cash as a hero of American/a music.
That voice was (largely) there across his whole career of course – but the Rick Rubin assist, the passing of time, the placement of key songs, his own frail/failing health, it all combined to sell his sadness to a larger audience.
A while back I wrote a review of the Close Readers album, New Spirit. I love the album. I made mention that a pretty voice often makes it hard to believe the words/the story. A gnarled, lived-in voice, a “real” voice over a manufactured one, whether gruff and gruesome or a bit of a bleat helps to sell the story of a song. That was my kind/not so kind way of saying that Damien Wilkens is no great shakes as a singer technically, but that he is absolutely fabulous as the singer for The Close Readers; hearing him sing his stories is what is important. It’s the reason the songs are so great. (Well, they’re very well written too, as you might expect). He might want some American Idol runner-up to record one or two of his songs (for the money) but they wouldn’t mean anything to anyone (beyond that fiscal trade-off).
The weary voice, the lived-in voice, the sombre, gruff, not-at-all-beautiful-but-absolutely-wonderful – this is the voice I find myself attracted to in most cases.
I can do slick, and pretty – but I want to hear songs sung blue more often than I want shiny, happy people invading my stereo’s speakers.
I’m thinking of Kurt Wagner from Lambchop and Bill Callahan/Smog/(Smog); I’m thinking also of Tom Waits on The Heart Of Saturday Night.
There’s something in a really sad song that makes me happy; I take a joy from it – not at the expense of the singer or subject, just in the genuine emotion offered. The very mournful framing of Lambchop’s song Soaky In The Pooper (instrumentally) is a huge part of what makes it. But Wagner’s voice. That’s key. Is it even in key? Irrelevant. That mopey, mourning mumble conveys pathos and twisted black humour, it somehow simultaneously presents earnest, wistful resolve and a light storyteller’s chuckle as the events unfold.
I go back to that song time and again – in the context of the album, in the context of a playlist of a bunch of Lambchop songs – and as a standalone piece. I feel very good about feeling sad when I hear that song.
There’s something in that isn’t there? Feeling good about feeling sad. That speech from the movie Crossroads where Willie tells Eugene that “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad, thinkin’ ‘bout the woman he once was with…” that scene from that movie got into my brain. Ry Cooder providing the musical motif to give weight to the words and the scene – this is probably where I am alone but I think about that scene often, I think about that as a sound, a mood, a vibe, a feel. And it stretches out beyond the genre of blues.
There are of course so many examples of songs sung blue. Everyone, in fact knows one. Like the man said.
So, it’s your turn – what are your favourite songs sung blue? Who is your favourite singer for conveying that blue – as opposed to Blues – tone and feel?