When I think about the loves of my life, there have been as many challenges as rewards, as much adventure as contentment, as much heartbreak as exhilaration.
One thing love has never been for me is boring.
From Valentines Day, when Clay Aiken strongly hinted at the possibility that his next album would be comprised of love songs, to the end of April when he confirmed that idea, there have been a variety of responses. Some have loved the idea of a CD containing traditional love songs by such a stellar vocalist. Others thought that such a choice would be far too timid, too limited artistically for the crucial sophomore album. Some have wondered what Clay would do to stretch the concept of love songs far enough to include music that is infinitely more interesting than “You Light Up My Life” --- or even “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
I am part of that last group, and I am expecting a few surprises from a singer who has never bored me.
My favorite love songs range from tender and intimate to raw, reckless, passionate, ecstatic, devastated, and are both personal and universal. Here are just a few:
James Taylor’s “Copperline”
Joni Mitchell’s “The Same Situation”
Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free”
Steve Winwood – “Higher Love”
U2’s “Two Hearts Beat As One”
Chris Isaak’s “Don’t Make Me Dream About You”
Stevie Wonder’s “As”
Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window”
The artists I most enjoy and admire have sung about love that is far beyond Hallmark card sentiments, prepubescent hand holding and “moon-June-swoon” rhyme schemes.
So what can be expected from a CD of Clay Aiken’s favorite love songs?
Ah… that’s the mystery, isn’t it?
I know that whatever he chooses will be beautifully sung. Starting from an already high point, the improvement in Clay’s interpretive technique over the last three and a half years has been a joy to witness. His artistic choices, from vocal dynamics to arrangements, have grown much more interesting in time. Gone is the man who would toss in a beautifully executed and sustained glory note just because he could --- just look at his performance of “My Grown Up Christmas List” on Good Morning America last Christmas to see how he chose a more effective low and subtle interpretation over the more usual high and belted notes.
I guess he has returned that cast iron frying pan of talent and upgraded to a new set of top quality professional vocal “cookware”.
The “smoke, grit and edge” in the title of this piece are three factors I hoped Clay would add to his vocals in a piece I wrote during the summer of 2003. (I am not a musician, so I didn’t have the vocabulary for the growth I hoped to see in him.) He has such a beautiful voice and I would never want him to lose that, but his diction was always crisp, his pitch remarkably accurate and his tone was bright. I thought he needed a few more colors in his palette, a few more shades of gray, and a bit of texture added to what was not yet a mature voice. Making the transition from amateur to professional, it remained to be seen at the time how broad and deep his talents really were. After all of this time, I have yet to see his limits. With Clay’s continuing growth as an artist, I can’t wait to see what he does with songs about love.
Though Clay’s taste might be more mainstream than mine, I don’t think it is possible to define his taste based solely on one pop album and one Christmas CD. I look instead to the song selection on his tours, where Clay has chosen to stretch and grow by covering artists such as Prince, U2 and the Goo Goo Dolls. Certainly this new album could include a song by an artist as interesting and innovative as these.
How far has Clay looked to find these love songs? Have the experiences of the last three years informed his choices? I started thinking about what genres of music a pop artist might look to for material for the last twenty-five years.
There were no songs representing grunge on The Jukebox Tour and, though lyrical content might have been a factor in some songs, I can think of a dozen riveting numbers that might be on this CD without even leaving Seattle.
I got to know that music well when I worked on Cameron Crowe’s movie “Singles” in 1991. There were three guys with bit parts in the film who I got to know just a little bit over the three and a half month shoot. Their names are Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament and they were just beginning work on an album they would call “Ten”.
Their then-unknown band, Pearl Jam, played at our wrap party. In a few months, they would become stars.
If Clay were to take a close look at grunge, he would find some songs that were compelling, lyrically interesting and vocally challenging.
I love Black: atmospheric, complex and with this wonderful lyric, plaintively wailed:
All five horizons revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn…
I know someday you'll have a beautiful life
I know you'll be a sun
In somebody else's sky
Why can't it be
Why can't it be mine?
Sounds like a love song to me.
Something bright and up-tempo would need to be included to balance the darkness of such a song. One of the most intoxicating, exuberant love songs I know is Got to Get You Into My Life from The Beatles’ album Revolver.
I was alone, I took a ride,
I didn't know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there
Ooh, then I suddenly see you,
Ooh, did I tell you I need you
Every single day of my life…
Got to get you into my life!
There is so much joy in that song, such a sense of possibility. I love the way Paul McCartney riffs on the lyric near the end and, though it is almost giddy with discovery, it is far from a silly love song.
What about world issues and social activism? As an ambassador for UNICEF, Clay has seen a world that must have been beyond his imaging three years ago. What “love song” could he find to address that?
Many musicians have addressed social issues and the state of the world in their music. Here are just a few: Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Sting/The Police, The Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, U2, Tupac Shakur, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and any number of world artists, including Bob Marley, Youssou N’Dour and Johnny Clegg & Savuka.
After Clay’s UNICEF field mission to Uganda in May 2005, he was quoted in the Ugandan press, saying “I’m thinking of composing a song about the plight of (Internally Displaced Persons) in northern Uganda. When I return to the US I will talk to some people. Possibly in the coming months, I’ll have composed it. We should think of creative ways of sensitizing the international community about the crisis.”
Does Clay have such a song yet? It could be part of the “great new original stuff”, one of the “real gems”, perhaps in the form of a lullaby to the child night commuters who walk to the cities each night, seeking the safety they do not have at home.
That would be a remarkable love song indeed.
Here’s Johnny Clegg’s love song to South Africa, as it struggled to be free of apartheid --- Take My Heart Away from Shadow Man (English and Zulu lyrics):
Take my heart away…
To be the sound of wild geese calling
To be ten seasons in a night
To dance the sun beyond the tides of war and peace
To put silence stained by crimes to flight
I need to heart-break-loose-the wind
Dedela umoya wami, Baba
(Set my spirit free, father)
To see your eyes shine like two desert stars
To see life burning with a mission
To break the empty circle of living and dying
To leave a child with a vision
Sing me the songs that taste of freedom
Thread me through with your sacred needle
Liyeza, liyeza, liyeza ilanga lami seliyeza
(It's coming, it's coming, my day is coming)
As he has discussed on a number of occasions, there is another kind of love that is deeply personal to Clay. This would be another love song of a different type, just as Clay wrote about in his Valentines Day blog.
It's the title track of the album called “Again” by Donnie McClurkin.
When I needed company, someone
Just to sit with me
When I need a helping hand, someone
To understand me
When I need someone who cares
Someone to wipe away my tears
Reach out and calm my fears
I know that You’ll be there
Again I call you and again You answer
Again I need You and again You’re there
Again I reach out, and again You hold me
You console me once more, and again
I didn’t know who was singing Again when I first heard it and I took it as a secular song, a fantastic soul-style love song rather than a gospel number. Unless one reads the lyrics and sees that “You” is capitalized, it is a song that can be taken both ways. I once jokingly referred to "I Will Carry You" are a "stealth Christian" song, but now it is often played on Christian radio. I can't think of any reason why a song like this wouldn't fit the album.
Of Lyle Lovett's “The Road to Ensenada”, Elysa Gardner wrote:
“One of the great traditions in pop music is the breakup album, on which an established singer/songwriter recounts the dissolution of a marriage or love affair, often with enough gravity and pathos to fuel a tragic opera… Instead, (Lyle Lovett) gives us The Road to Ensenada, a laid-back charmer with all the quirky humor and wry wistfulness we've come to expect from this tall, cool Texan.
“Even the more poignant moments on Ensenada are free of cloying sentimentality. On… the hauntingly spare ‘Promises’, Lovett's matter-of-fact vocals demonstrate the power of controlled anguish.”
Promises is a love song as bleak as a lonely Texas landscape, heartbreakingly beautiful, deeply sorrowful --- and completely devoid of sentimentality and self-pity.
Hear the song at Rhapsody or a sample at Amazon
And promises broken
Words stain my lips
Just like blood on my hands
And words are like poison
That sinks down inside you
And some things you do
You just don't understand
If God is my witness
Then God is my savior
But if you are my judge
Then I'm already damned
And words are like poison
That sinks down inside you
And some things you do
You just don't understand.
Lyle Lovett lived the experience he wrote and sings about in that song. I ask myself: how much does an artist have to experience in order to sing a song convincingly, and how much can he imagine?
Earlier in his career, Clay talked about the amount of angst on his first album, saying it was not something he had experienced, and said he wanted his next CD to be both more upbeat and more up-tempo. It’s interesting to me, though, that “I Survived You”, one of his best songs in concert, is triumphant but angry, and “Solitaire”, one of the songs he has recorded that comes closest to being a masterpiece, is absolutely despairing.
That’s the artist at work.
And with or without a broken love affair of his own, like all of us, Clay has seen and experienced things that must have broken his heart. Like all of us, he must have sometimes felt disappointed in himself and in the way he treated someone he loved. And like all great artists and all truly gifted interpreters of lyrics, he is learning to visit places beyond his experience.
If the concept is love in its myriad forms, the culmination should be joy and completion.
What about a love song that is both tender and self-aware, a reflection on what is really worthwhile? This one is a completely non-sappy ballad, and, in the best rock tradition, a clear-eyed, mature anthem to true love.
This song, by Don Henley, is called Taking You Home, from the album Inside Job.
You can hear a sample at his website or watch the video there.
In the Rolling Stone review, Anthony Decurtis writes about Taking You Home.
He says that the song is part of “ a thematic trilogy … about love's transforming power. Unlike most paeans to domestic bliss… these songs convey genuine wonder, a palpable gratitude to "the god of simple things."”
Though I grew up in Southern California, I was not really a fan of The Eagles, but I have tremendous appreciation for Don Henley as a solo artist. He can be didactic, angry and even overstate his case, but more often than not I love his penetrating lyrics, his interesting melodies and his raspy, weary, soulful voice.
The lyrics always remind me of Clay --- or at least my imagined version of him.
I had a good life
Before you came
I had my friends and my freedom
I had my name
Still there was sorrow and emptiness
'Til you made me glad
Oh, in this love I found strength I never knew I had
And this love
Is like nothing I have ever known
Take my hand love
I'm taking you home
I'm taking you, home
Where we can be with the ones who really care
Home, where we can grow together
Keep you in my heart forever
Oh and this love
Is like nothing I have ever known, oh no no baby
Take my hand love
I'm taking you home
I know that it is entirely possible that Clay’s conceptual album of love songs will be made up of familiar top 40 hits, but these six songs are just a brief idea of how to sing about love while staying far away from the cloying and the simplistic.
I hope that at least some of Clay’s choices are adventurous and far-reaching, but he has performed at least a dozen songs in competition and in concert that I never cared for --- until he sang them. Clay Aiken is just that good.
And though this album could be called a labor of love, Clay should not have to labor so mightily to transform a sow’s ear song into a silk purse performance. Such a talented vocalist deserves intriguing adult themes and vocally challenging material, written, accompanied and produced by talents as gifted as he is.
I hope he gets it.
The result would truly be something to sing about.
© 2006 by berkeley
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