Two singers and their landscapes of hurt and healing
Lianne La Havas: Bittersweet
It’s time for me to rave about Lianne La Havas again. Do you know this London-based singer-songwriter with the dusky voice and the wide-gauge vibrato you could drive a dream-laden, funkadelic truck through? Well, you should.
I can’t think of anything recently that has given me as much delight—delight in the discovery, delight in the performance—than her live cover of “I Say A Little Prayer.”
(And the song writing combo of Burt Bacharach’s music and Hal David’s lyrics spreads its priceless memes through the mental matrix of yet another generation. Immortality may be possible, after all.)
Be sure as well to check out La Havas’s bouncy and irresistible single “What You Don’t Do”, and if you used to dress in blue corduroy and a couple of scarves, have a little toke, then go to “the bop” of a Friday night in Islington, you’ll be teleported back, but with slightly better lyrics.
Play the next track on her album “Blood” and you’ll be wrapped in the haunting heartbreak of R&B and dancing close—real close— to someone who was a stranger five minutes earlier.
Since we’re inevitably into comparisons: La Havas’s vocal quality is light-years removed from Sade’s, yet she skirts the haunted borderlands of the same emotional-psychic realm: the municipality of heart-hurt where your doomed love is like a sore tooth socket you keep probing with your tongue.
The differences are two-fold. First is La Havas’s natural vocal gift which invests her singing with the shock of positive and irresistible passion; the second is her basic existential premise that love is something you rush toward, arms open and blazing with hope, rather than a battle that leaves you wounded and huddled in a corner while you struggle to put on a brave, martyred face.
Proof? Sade demonstrably had to teach herself to sing, note by agonized note; La Havas just sings—the way a creature that’s born to sing, sings. Singing is best experienced as pure joy expressed in wavelengths, rather than as a Lazarus-feat of self-will, akin to a victim of premature burial breaking out of her makeshift tomb, that we applaud with polite approbation. (Sade makes the lame to walk, but, oh, how shakily for the first few miles.)
La Havas’s song style is scrunchily funky, hypnotic, even, often with a harmonic rhythm that’s expansive as a Saturday-night sunset when you’re seventeen, and lush production sexy as lipstick smudged by a kiss.
The lyrics afford the usual nonsense about hangin’ around, hangin’ around while the sun’s goin’ down and about bittersweet summer rain healing you, but, as Beethoven established once and for all, music’s task is to take over where words fail; words, however bittersweet, are never the point.
The point is the leap from the breathless intimacy and low register of the opening to the full-voiced, ecstatic reprise an octave higher, a cliff leap to certain death played in reverse, where your broken body pulls itself together, leaps from the blood-spattered rocks and the heaving sea up and up into the starry vault, where your heart stretches to breaking point over every love lost and every possibility of the electric, youthful night.
Lianne La Havas just keeps getting better.
Hear Lianne La Havas sing “Bittersweet” :
Sade: Majestic Pain
I adore, and always have adored, Sade and her unique, erotically charged melancholy. Her voice is so simple and pure, but it’s not the ethereal, freakish purity of a boy soprano, or fey, like New Age Enya.
To describe this voice is challenging, and I find myself mimicking those strained descriptions usual to wine-tasters or master perfumers: to veer off into “hints of vanilla, burnt toast and wet dog;” top notes, drydowns and sillage, the tantalizing wake of a scent.
All right, then: Sade’s voice is lean, stripped down, “white” (the standard term for a voice without the warmth of vibrato, but now tainted with racialized connotations; we’ll let it pass for now) with an edge of smoky color; as stately as it is saintly, it mesmerizes.
This stripped down esthetic suits her musical-lyrical project, for she’s never in the throes of emotion. Instead she gifts us with the unsentimental wisdom mined from past misfortunes, becoming mythic in the process.
Sade already knows where she stands in relation to these mysterious crises, and she comes to bear witness. Don’t make the same mistake, she seems to warn, look what I’ve been through. She’s like those Catholic martyrs solemnly holding out their body parts on a platter. Man, it hurt, but it was worth it to know you’re safe, or even saved.
Sade takes about a decade to put out an album these days, which is, I think, a testament to her integrity. She’s lived in between sets, as it were, and reports back from the firing lines. (And there’s not a single dud album. Each one is conceptually and musically unique, with its recognizable sound world. The only other artist as fanatically perfectionist and rarefied I can think of is Kate Bush.)
Firing lines are an apt metaphor, for her lyrics are rife with guns, wars fought and skirmishes triumphant or tragic; bullets that her rueful, bullet-proof soul must arm itself against. Life and love see her charging into battle like Jeanne d’Arc, and the victories more often than not find her proud but alone.
If not always, just often, shot from the barrel of a gun, her pain is localized, physically embedded. In “Like A Tattoo,” she sings of a mysterious harm from the past, an unresolved war that has marked her:
“…like the scar of age
written all over my face,
war is still raging inside of me
I still feel the chill
As I reveal my shame to you
I wear it like
There’s nothing specific, just clues scattered on the ground as though after the crash of a light aircraft carrying only two passengers. What is the shame she’s about to reveal? We only know that it is permanent, a “tattoo.”
The sense of legendary events, devastation permanently locked in a mark we will never see, is expressed in a song format that in classical music is called “through-composed.” That is, rather than the usual cyclic form where verses with their own distinct music alternate with an unchanging chorus, the song follows a developmental course, proceeding from first note to last without the music ever repeating itself. The story unfurls. It is magical and sombre.
Many people disparage her work as “elevator music,” implying that it’s all pretty interchangeable, a bland Band-aid made for papering over the cracks of mundane existence; something to zone you out at the mall as you max out your credit card. These same people, or at least relatives, find her “soothing,” but these are not the true acolytes, or even competent listeners.
I do not find her “soothing” any more than I find a Beethoven symphony “soothing”. There’s so much going on behind her limpid vocal line, so much caustic sorrow and so much stubborn faith. She is the definition of minimalist style with maximum impact. Every note is a piece of the stained glass window, one color after another, each pane soldered in place.
“Somebody already broke my heart” contains a singular stroke of genius that elevates this torch song from solemn to fabulous: an unexpected, off-beat, hollowed-out electronic twang which we instantly understand as the moment of physical and emotional fission; hear it in concert on her album “Lovers Live” and notice how the reaction charges through the audience like a lightning bolt. She’s inviting you to slip into her skin.
“In Another Time” is surely the tenderest anthem to proud survival, naked vulnerability and serene trust that was ever sung. To me, Sade is the epitome of female power, patience, strength, and love, the traits with which women will save the human race, if ever it is saved at all.
I hear the album “Diamond Life” with a most disorienting nostalgia. Its songs take me right back to a very turbulent time… (and, this being me, I should narrow it down a little: the mid-1980’s). I was living in London, England, and unhappily in love, because I had not yet admitted how loneliness had crept into my core and become what I feared would be the tenor of my life.
Along with the scent of lavender essential oil, Andy’s signature scent and his unchanging and repellent aura, the song “Smooth Operator” transports me right back into the confusion and self-induced trauma of that impossible affair.
Andy was a smooth operator, too, but I was too much of a mess to understand what a fool I was making of myself. If I say we were made for each other, don’t take that the wrong way, as a positive thing. There is a kind of love that seeks out and binds to your receptors, replicates itself, but is as far removed from health as the moon and the sky.
Hear Sade sing “Smooth Operator” :
He tried to reach me once, in the 1990’s, when I had just come crawling back home to Toronto; true to his instinctive need to destroy, his one phone message precipitated hysteria in my partner, and ultimately the unraveling of that friendship.
I learned of Andy’s death, via a newsletter distributed by his friends and colleagues, three years ago. Now I was the distant one, unable, behind the barrier of time, to mourn the passing of a phantom. And I’m ashamed to admit how much I exulted in my survival, my Pyrrhic victory.
Listen to Diamond Life, then listen to Love Deluxe, my personal favorite of Sade’s albums. It is seductively comfortless and haunting as its cover image: Sade in the only embrace in which she feels safe, which is her own, and the statuary gleam of her black skin, pushed in the post-processing to burnished ebony, is a dangerously tempting and blatantly racialized objectification. It dares us to see the skin color and find it ravishing, but then, the whole album takes you unawares, or maybe just takes you, period.
On this album is one outlier: her anthem “Pearls”. This recounts, against a measureless, mournful orchestral chorale, relentless and solemn as the desert sun, the agony of a Somalian mother scratching for grains, “pearls”, to save her little girl from starving to death. The song’s climax is a searing, upper register “Alleluia” that, once heard, you can never forget, never exist quite as blissfully ignorant as you existed before.
“She lives in a world she didn’t choose
And it hurts like brand-new shoes.“
What can this possibly mean? Brand new shoes are so far removed from the song’s universe, I initially balked at the metaphor. It still challenges me. But I begin to understand that the mother’s daily suffering has become mundane: also that our temporary, inconsequential pain at that pair of new shoes might just be the worst physical trauma we endure. She has to use that metaphor to get through to us.
The inadequacy of the comparison is the point, as is our smug complacency. You will never understand, never endure, this mother’s pain, she is telling us. But for a sublime few minutes, that mother stands before us, and, miraculously, not despairing, but praising god.
Is this really the same artist?
It’s hard to credit that Sade became such a wonderful singer. She got, as they say, deep. On Diamond Life, she is, and don’t take this the wrong way, dear, but, well—just passable. She sells the songs, and it’s charming despite itself, like Elaine Stritch rasping out Broadway Baby as we clap indulgently.
And yet, there is already something there; something unfailingly confident, angry, brazen, bold; already something very intense, very diamond-pure glinting behind the rough edges.
And she took this scrap of vocal talent and beat it and beat it and beat it in the forge of heartbreak; beat it into submission and spun it out into a new and precious element, something never before discovered: eroto-melancholium,
Sade’s always-adulterated base metal of longing.