Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Modern Classic Love Songs

The fine art of the love song has largely fallen into misappropriation in the modern rock era. From sickly-sweet and farcical declarations of affection from cringe-inducing teen vixens, asinine boy bands and bland American Idol artefacts to bump-and-grind bedroom anthems meted out by testosterone-charged gangsta-rappers and glossy R&B posers, the classic love song looks to have been forever bastardised and besmirched by the commercially-inclined, superficial whims and fancies of the mainstream record industry.

Thankfully, there still remains a handful of singer-songwriters who have kept the fires burning by generating top-drawer songs that manage to sidestep the usual clichés, and invest the requisite power and passion. There’s also an innate strength and spirit in most of these songs that, for want of a better platitude, have helped them to stand the test of time, despite the ever-changing vagaries of the business.

Here are 12 representative and highly expressive examples of how a modern-day love song should sound like, by 12 of the most persuasive singer-songwriters still working today. These are songs that should constitute the perfect soundtrack to the myriad aspects of that elusive and amorphous thing called love.

SKY BLUE AND BLACK - Jackson Browne ("I’m Alive", 1993)
Jackson Browne easily reclaimed his 1970s sensitive-troubadour mantle with his 1993 album "I’m Alive" after spending much of the 1980s casting a cold and critical eye on a ruthless, conservative Republican administration and the general state of the world. "I’m Alive" was a perceptibly thematic album written about Browne’s failed relationship with actress Daryl Hannah, with self-explanatory titles like "I’ll Do Anything", "Two of You, Two of Me" and "All Good Things". However, it’s the album’s penultimate number, "Sky Blue and Black", that stands out as the most vividly open-hearted song. "Sky Blue and Black" is a powerful, yet empathic statement of final, forgiving acceptance that incorporates imagistic everyday depictions (“In the fragments of the songs carried down the wind from some radio”, “In the murmuring of the city in the distance ominous and low”) and simple, heartfelt statements (“If you ever need holding, call my name and I’ll be there”, “I’d have fought the world for you, if I thought you wanted me to”). The musical template is appropriately uncomplicated and direct (plainspoken piano chords, an earnest electric-guitar solo, and a recurring, memorable six-note synth hook), making for one of the most beautiful songs in Browne’s impressive repertoire.

IT'S PROBABLY ME - Sting ("Ten Summoner’s Tales", 1993)
Ex-Police chief Gordon Matthew Sumner has largely fallen into self-made ignominy these days, but back in the heydays of his solo career, he was a force to be reckoned with. "It’s Probably Me" was first previewed as the main theme to the 1992 Mel Gibson action vehicle "Lethal Weapon 3", but it was a polished version that somewhat failed to bring out the inherent soul of the song. It wasn’t until Sting’s form-finding 1993 fourth album, "Ten Summoner’s Tales" (arguably the apex of his career) that the same song was remade in a more sympathetic, reflective rendition. The overall feel of the new "It’s Probably Me" was a definite improvement, eschewing the plastic-soul countenance of the original for a appropriately nocturnal, after-hours atmosphere that fleshes out the self-doubt of the lyrics (“Some would say I should let you go your way, you’ll only make me cry”), supportively coloured by a faithful Miles Davis-style muted-trumpet facsimile. "It’s Probably Me" was also arguably the last instance when Sting can truly write an effortless, honest love song without resorting to truisms, as he would do for subsequent records.

SURF - Roddy Frame ("Surf", 2002)
Has there been a more criminally under-recognised songwriter than the steady-voiced Roddy Frame, erstwhile frontman (and the one constant member) of 80s Scottish pop combo Aztec Camera? While Frame scored modest commercial success with 1987’s super-sleek "Love" album, following efforts have been less than victorious on the charts, even as the quality of his songwriting has improved in leaps and bounds. So it came as no surprise that 2002’s all-acoustic "Surf" failed to make even the Top One Hundred of the British charts, notwithstanding the fact that it contained a collection of Frame’s most sincere love songs. The title track, the undisputed highlight, is an achingly tender and exquisite ode to unrequited love, with some of the most devastating lines Frame has ever laid down (“I’m half-lost, wondering if I should follow or lay low”, “Take her face out of the start of the day for me”), backed by a clear-cut, crystalline acoustic-guitar loop. At the end of the day, "Surf" is perhaps one of the most candid portrayals of that peculiar and archetypal sentiment that hits you like the proverbial 10-ton truck, when you realise the person you’re in love with is not in love with you.

SECRET WORLD - Peter Gabriel ("Us", 1992)
Peter Gabriel had largely consolidated his standing as one of the last surviving elder statesmen of that much-maligned genre known as prog-rock when "Us" was released in 1992. While the preceding "So" from 1986 was, and remains the most popular record in Gabriel’s large body of work, it was "Us" that more or less confirmed Gabriel’s growing reputation as a musical polymath. An almost seamless blend of Eastern esoterica and Western firepower, Us didn’t emulate the massive commercial triumph of its predecessor, but it was an album replete with high points. One such highlight is the closing "Secret World", surely one of the most cathartic songs in Gabriel’s oeuvre. Ostensibly written about Gabriel’s then-recent break-up with actress Rosanna Arquette, it remains one of the most indicative and eloquent relationship-aftermath epics ever written. "Secret World" is filled with expressive metaphorical images (“The house it is crumbling but the stairways stand”, “Divided in two like Adam and Eve”), and also perceptive hindsight observations (“In all the places we were hiding love, what was it we were thinking of?”), backed by a dynamic, inventive yet poignant musical accompaniment of quiet piano chords, airy flute lines, brooding synth tones, and easily bassist Tony Levin’s best performance so far. Gabriel has not produced, and would never recreate again such a widescreen yet intimate examination of the matters of the heart.

DAYS CHASING DAYS - Stephen Cummings ("Falling Swinger", 1994)
Grey-haired Stephen Cummings writes songs set in Australian inner-suburban life, about everyday situations, and the joys and travails of falling in and out of love in such a grimly humdrum environment. Not exactly a surefire recipe for pop-world conquest, but there is a small but devoted community of fans who have come to rely on his starkly evocative ditties to soundtrack their daily lives. "Days Chasing Days", from 1994’s typically moody "Falling Swinger", is a deliberate, chillingly beautiful melody that takes a compassionate look at a rapidly disintegrating relationship, with some of Cummings’s most nakedly illustrative lyrics (“In the city of my heart, you are the central part”, “Don’t just sit there looking at me, we want to dance this dance together”). Housed within a severe, austere, yet crafted production by Church frontman Steve Kilbey, with merely a set of measured, bare-bones piano chords and an eerie-sounding electronic drone anchoring the proceedings, "Days Chasing Days" is nonetheless one of the most heartfelt - and heartbreaking - songs written about the last, dying days of a romance.

THE DOWNTOWN LIGHTS - The Blue Nile ("Hats", 1989)
Perpetually rain-lashed, choked with grime and factory smoke, Glasgow has nevertheless produced some of the best genuine-pop acts to illuminate the business. Deacon Blue, Hue and Cry and John Martyn are just some of the luminaries who have become household names, at least in their native Britain. And then, there’s The Blue Nile. Having released a meagre four albums in the span of their 20-year career, the brooding trio is currently holding the industry record as the slowest workers in the trade. But each new Blue Nile record is a true wonder to behold, as it was with their second album, 1989’s "Hats". Abounding with anecdotal slices of city life, i.e. walking alone on deserted late-night streets or riding in empty after-midnight trains, its songs were intensely graphic studies in urban isolation. "The Downtown Lights", a perennial fan favourite, may stretch on for a protracted six-and-a-half minutes, but it remains a sharply dramatic unrequited-love scenario (“Sometime I walk away, when I really want to do, is love and hold you close”). Its wholly electronic background (bristling with cinematic synth-string sweeps and underpinned by a steady synth-bass pulse) lends a believable sheen to the inner-city feel evoked by the song. And to top it all off, Paul Buchanan’s choked-with-emotion baritone adds the required element of loneliness and sorrow to the proceedings.

LET IT BE LOVE - Craig Armstrong ("As If to Nothing", 2002)
Another luminary hailing from the forbidding northern metropolis of Glasgow, Craig Armstrong got his professional start as string orchestrator and arranger for Massive Attack’s trip-hop masterpieces in the 1990s, before embarking on a sporadic solo career (while moonlighting in between as soundtrack scorer for a number of feature films, including "Romeo + Juliet", "The Bone Collector" and "The Quiet American"). Armstrong’s sophomore effort from 2002, "As If to Nothing", was a bit of a jumbled mishmash of styles, but it was the last track that really stood out. "Let It Be Love" could have been improved by the removal of Armstrong’s usual preponderance of orchestrated strings, but it is still a strong and emotive number about that old standby, unrequited love. Armstrong had roped in ex-Big Dish frontman Steve Lindsay to lend his straightforward tenor to the piano ballad, and it suits the song to a tee. Majestic yet personal at the same time, it’s a fine example of how a simple love song can hold the promise of something grander than its original character.

WILD IS THE WIND - David Bowie ("Station to Station", 1976)
This may be hard to accept now, but there was a time in the mid-1970s when David Bowie was coked up beyond belief, suffering from a prolonged bout of substance addiction and chronic depression. But, as Nick Drake says, the darkest shadows can give the brightest light, and Bowie produced some of his best works in the aforementioned era, even as he would later claim that he can’t remember much of what went on. "Station to Station" from 1976 was a schizophrenic, dual-natured tribute to classic Motown soul and electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. There’s virtually no filler on the album, but Bowie’s cover of the old Tin Pan Alley standard "Wild is the Wind" is a particular standout. Arguably Bowie’s most passionate vocal accomplishment is present here, and producer Tony Visconti had the sense to secure Bowie’s ghostly yet affecting croon to an immaculate, pristine, jazz-tinged backdrop, bringing out the soulful quotient of the song admirably. In a catalogue filled with numerous artistic achievements, "Wild is the Wind" remains pure, vintage Bowie, and arguably constitutes his most moving love song.

YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME - Paul Weller ("Stanley Road", 1995)
Hardcore Jam fans must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when Paul Weller decided to ditch the faux-soul pretensions of his Style Council tenure for a shift to an earthier trad-rock base in the early 1990s. While this is by no means an outright return to the shouty punk aesthetics of The Jam, it was a welcome phase change from the tres-chic apparel of The Style Council. "Stanley Road", Weller’s third album from 1995, was basically a continuation of the 1960s-influenced rock direction (disparagingly labelled as “Dad-rock” by less forgiving quarters) he started with 1991’s "Paul Weller". It also contained one of his most consummate love songs, "You Do Something to Me". The classic, Traffic-informed melody, the cautious acoustic-guitar filigree, the bittersweet lyrical content, and Weller’s husky-bear baritone all add up to an engaging performance, and a certified gem in Weller’s abundant inventory of songs.

EVERY LITTLE KISS - Bruce Hornsby ("The Way It Is", 1987)
An unabashedly jaunty ditty that deceptively masks a desperate lyric about the travails of waterfront labour, chronic homesickness and the pains of missing a loved one, "Every Little Kiss" is a out-and-out stellar exemplar of Bruce Hornsby’s virtuosic Southern-rock blueprint.
Highly melodic and bristling with all manner of heartland-rock instrumentation, "Every Little Kiss" also glows with a slight countryish mood, thanks to the astute, delicate fiddle touches. Of course, no Hornsby song would be complete without a trademark solo-piano breakdown, and the one here is a breathtakingly original sequence that is arguably the most dazzling musical progression on the entire album. While bandwagon fans will be most familiar with the hit-single title track of "The Way It Is", it’s "Every Little Kiss" which really demonstrates Hornsby’s impressive keyboard chops and elliptical songwriting.

WAVE - David Sylvian ("Gone to Earth", 1986)
David Sylvian remains the most reclusive and enigmatic personality of the British art-rock community, despite releasing a number of increasingly accomplished and intriguing works since leaving new-wave icons Japan in 1983. "Wave", a nine-minute masterpiece from 1986’s sophomore effort "Gone to Earth", is an apt example of Sylvian’s idiosyncratic yet accessible sensibilities. An intensely cinematic musical experience marked by an arena-sized snare drumbeat, freeform synth textures, a keening flugelhorn solo, and Robert Fripp’s superlative, peerless Frippertronics guitar pyrotechnics, the songs takes its time to build to a towering crescendo, eventually concluding with Sylvian’s wholly earnest - and frighteningly candid - vow that “I’d tear my very soul to make you mine”.

LITTLE HANDS - Duncan Sheik ("Duncan Sheik", 1996)
Unrequited love has rarely sounded so affecting, poignant or painful as South Carolina singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik’s "Little Hands". The six-minute epic, which ends Sheik’s eponymous debut effort on a bitterly disheartening way, is marked by several bars of a recurring acoustic-guitar line, plucked with excruciating precision and agonisingly rendered in Sheik’s hushed lower-register tenor. Simultaneously evoking the spirits of Nick Drake and Billie Holiday, the disconsolately downcast atmosphere of the song is heightened by the dejectedly imagistic lyrics (“She says, I’m afraid it’s not to be, you’re a sweet guy, but you ain’t for me”, “Her indifference fills the air”, “And I’m smiling, even though I’m dying, to know the love she says will never be”). Romantic glumness is at its best here.


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