Little late with the Thursday post this week, so here’s a good one that I’ve been saving up.
This week’s example of pop/jazz crossover is one of the oddest songs I know. It was written by Irish songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan, he of the alarming 70s ‘fro. You wouldn’t know from the jaunty, upbeat feel of the original version that this was a lament of a would-be suicide unless you listened closely to the lyrics. He sings the song in a bland monotone, so apparently bereft of emotion (to my ears, anyway) that it’s positively spooky. There is a bewildering disconnect between words and music. Here’s a You Tube video of the original version.
British jazz vocalist Ian Shaw, though, gets it right. The lyrics now come front and center. By untethering the tune from its naff, plinky-plonk rhythm, Shaw does something quite extraordinary with this. He’s a wonderfully soulful singer who always wears his proverbial heart on his sleeve, but even by his standards this feels raw and almost unbearably poignant. Even after countless listens, this still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. I believe every word he sings. Listen to his falsetto lament at the very end of the song, and I defy you not to feel moved. I don’t want to get too heavy or nuffink, but this, ladies and gents, is what great art is all about. Utterly riveting.
This is from Shaw’s excellent album, A World Still Turning.
A song about death rendered lifeless by its own creator… and brought to life after thirty years by someone who understands music. Thanks… I had never heard Shaw sing.
I think that Gilbert O’Sullivan sang the song perfectly well. It’s about a guy who’s depressed (suicidal) because he got left at the alter and now wants to give up on life. It’s not about someone crying over losing love. In fact, I think what you describe as ‘bereft of emotion’ is intentional and fitting. You should also consider the era in which this song was released and the impact of the British Invasion. Had O’Sullivan not sung it that way I doubt you would have ever heard it in the first place. We’re lucky songs like that exist, especially ones that are good enough to be covered and still sound good. Shaw does a great cover but I would pay way more money to see O’Sullivan perform it. Your posting discredits an extremely talented songwriter/performer, which is unfortunate. It’s like the Beatles song ‘With a little help from my friends’. Joe Cocker rocks that song, but the Beatles made it happen, you can’t criticize them for letting Ringo sing it.
I’m not sure my post discredits O’Sullivan quite as harshly as you suggest. After all, I just talked about one song, not his whole oeuvre. I certainly don’t dispute his talent as a songwriter. I agree that we should be thankful that songs like this exist, and I’m sure you’re right that he sang it that way intentionally – it just didn’t happen to connect with me. Artists make these choices all the time, and it’s inevitable that when they do so they lose people along the way. I’m sure O’Sullivan won’t lose any sleep over it.
I’m curious though – what is it about the impact of the British Invasion and the relevance of the era that I should consider?
In your original post you claim that “Ian Shaw, though, gets it right” which I interpreted, based on the previous paragraphs, as implying that O’Sullivan got it wrong; which I believe discredits him. I disagree with the statement because the original version obviously connected with enough people to make it famous, so O’Sullivan must have been to some degree ‘right’. And the answer is influence and popular culture.