Sunday 19 October 2008

Nat "King" COLE: Love Is The Thing

(#9: 8 June 1957, 1 week; tied with The King And I)

Track listing: When I Fall In Love/Stardust/Stay As Sweet As You Are/Where Can I Go Without You?/Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much/Love Letters/Ain’t Misbehavin’/I Thought About Marie/At Last/It’s All In The Game/When Sunny Gets Blue/Love Is The Thing

The first number one album by a named black artist (since we can hardly discount Harry Edison or Louis Armstrong’s key contributions to previous chart toppers) and the third beginning of time in this tale; Marvin Gaye, whose lifelong ambition was to make an album like Love Is The Thing, begins here, as do Jimmy Scott, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo and so many others. Although the idea for the concept of Love Is The Thing was inspired by the examples Sinatra had set, its own invention – that of a mood record consisting solely of seductively romantic ballads – has perhaps proved the most durable of all the Capitol concepts.

Like Sinatra, Cole on Capitol had been working more or less exclusively with Nelson Riddle, but by late 1956 he was looking to do something different and sent for Gordon Jenkins; on the spine of my 1986 reissue Jenkins and his orchestra are given full co-credit, and this is apt since the conversation which Jenkins’ strings and Cole’s voice have throughout Love Is The Thing is articulate, deft and touching. In addition, the record stands as a quietly surprising counterpart to the tortured soul, unable to douse his torch, typical of the Sinatra/Jenkins collaborations. There are no breakdowns or confessions here, no losing it altogether (as Sinatra audibly does on the last, wracked, parched “joy and gladness” of his 1960 “None But The Lonely Heart”); there are songs of lost or absent or rejected love, but Cole gives them all the same dignity as happiness, a dignity all more the dignified because we now know how hard won Cole’s was.

Cole died on 15 February 1965, exactly three weeks after my first birthday, aged 47, and I think he was the first major singer who for me was exclusively in the past tense; I have never known a time when Cole was “here,” with us. As a child this was quite unnerving, but the more I found out about Cole and his struggle later – even as a star he was obliged to cope with attempted stage invasions by racists, cancellation of TV shows by scared sponsors, burning KKK crosses on his Hollywood lawn, and of course there was also his other tale, that of a significant figure in the history of jazz piano in the forties – the more my admiration for that dignity, that noble refusal to be brought down or reduced, strengthened, and this made it all the sadder that he was eventually brought down prematurely, not by racism, but by lung cancer caused by his heavy smoking habit.

With Love Is The Thing there is also the case for its being the first ambient number one album and certainly the first album of suspended animation mood music to top the chart; all but one of its dozen tracks are set in the same slow tempo, rubato meditations alternating with discreet guitar, bass and brushes accompaniment, cantering steadily like a patient donkey reluctant to leave Oklahoma. There is a uniformity and yet also an indelible variety about these songs which puts me in mind of Satie; the same object, or subject, viewed from twelve different angles.

And each of these songs offers a specific and different angle on the theme, or the being, of “love” – so The Lexicon Of Love may also begin here – with every conceivable aspect viewed and studied. The mood is so convincing that it’s easy to escape the fact that Cole sings most of the songs from the perspective of a man alone; he has love to offer, but he doesn’t often have a lover to reciprocate. Hence the opening “When I Fall In Love” stands as a sort of manifesto, a declaration of Nat’s principles. Even in the introduction Jenkins sets up the male/female duality, words from the male – the low ‘cello, slowly moving upwards – answered by words from the female – the high strings which slowly come down to meet him. Both converge in the middle, ready for Cole’s sumptuously deep foundation of a voice (with a discreet signature of harp) to complete the picture. He sings, in the lightest yet profoundest of all bass voices, of the importance of permanence (“in a rest-LESS world like this is”) and of his unwavering commitment to fall in love with the right person and not settle for anyone except the right person, however long it may take. The climactic “and the moment I can feel that you feel that way too” seems to be addressed to the listener as much as any would-be Other; but he cannot hide his striking awe at the prospect of this deepest of loves.

Cole’s “Stardust” has perhaps by default become the most famous version of this song, and there is instructive comparison to be made with Sinatra’s attitude to the song in particular; although Sinatra recorded the song several times in his career, he never did it for Capitol – in part because he believed Cole’s reading to be definitive and unimprovable – and notoriously, for the 1962 Reprise Sinatra & Strings album, he sang only the prelude verse, much to Hoagy Carmichael’s bafflement, but he explained that he felt the prelude underrated and wished to give it its proper due.

Jenkins’ orchestration of “Stardust” seems to fade in as though floating into orbit from an unknown galaxy, and we get the first hearing of the repeated two-note semitone motif which keeps recurring with some disquiet throughout the album (even in the midst of the relatively tranquil and content “Love Letters”). There is more than a hint of the Bernard Herrmann ominous here; much has been made of Jenkins’ debt to Mahler, but listen to Herrmann’s Vertigo soundtrack in particular, recorded and released in 1958 since there is considerable, though independent, correspondence with what Jenkins did with his strings.

Cole, however, is undeterred; he has lost someone who perhaps can never be brought back, but he will keep his countenance. He sings the prelude in full, and beautifully, with a tone that suggests deep but resigned regret that “You wandered down the lane and far away.” Jenkins gradually eases the volume down in order to allow the song to begin in earnest, Cole marooned on his asteroid belt, helplessly glancing down at the nightingales, the memories of arms and hearts and new, but the post-Bing triple loops on words like “long” (in the line “But that was long ago”) trigger a moderately florid string commentary as the memory floods back into his deprived present, words like “reverie” and “refrain,” all of which graciously travels on into a far from certain future, the final, not quite resolved major string chords recalling Vaughan Williams and Thomas Tallis. My favourite version of “Stardust” remains the composer’s own, recorded in 1960, relatively late in his life, and alone with just piano and the words spoken, rather than sung, Carmichael ’s delivery sounding astonishingly similar to that of Kerouac; but the completeness of Cole’s reading is unlikely ever to be bettered.

“Stay As Sweet” returns to the themes of depth and permanence; he is not alone in this song, but a distant fear of mortality is beginning to grip his soul, as can be heard in his subtly trembling “Don’t ever lose” – and Cole is always ready to balance that emotionally with the softly ecstatic contentedness of “The way you say yes.” Once more we note words subsequently abandoned by pop – disused adjectives such as “discreet” and “grand” – and how Jenkins’ strings seem to snuggle up to you in the instrumental interlude. But again towards the end there intrudes an impalpable darkness – “Night and day I pray” and “that you’ll always stay” are accompanied by a quietly terrifying four note bass line resembling a suddenly magnified heartbeat, or an unspeakable chill – although Cole and Jenkins are careful to leave a final, sweet aftertaste.

Then we return to lost love; “Where Can I Go Without You?” is a sort of anti-“Around The World” (which latter Sinatra would go on to sing richly and contentedly with Billy May’s arrangement on his 1958 Come Fly With Me album); Cole wanders the globe without redemption (“I went to London town to clear up my mind”) and finds no joy (Paris, Singapore, Vienna, “even in Switzerland” – there’s always something there to remind him). There is just the merest hint of emotional exhaustion in Cole’s “I’m tired of faces and quaint old places if you can’t be there with me” and a reading of the final “Back on the boat again” verse whose gravitas, contrasted by the glittering waves of strings, betrays the tiniest suggestion of a weary march towards a self-erected gallows. “I’ll trade the sights I’ve seen for one loving glance” he concludes as Jenkins provides a cinematic sunset of an ending, but in truth there’s never any real doubt that he will continue to sail and search, even if – as he should – he comes to the conclusion that he needs to search himself.

Unrequited or wasted love is treated in “Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much,” a seldom-revived Irving Berlin song – and as with Swingin’ Lovers, it’s a tribute to Cole’s enterprise that the selections here are far from obvious – in which Cole is clearly and deeply sorrowful, but more for the lady who is rejecting or laughing at him than for himself (he nearly puts too much into his axiomatic “too much”) than for himself. Bemused and not even pretending to understand, he resolves that “maybe with a love so great and a love so small/Maybe I’ll be left with no love at all” as a sudden run of pizzicato mimics the sand draining out of the hourglass. Jenkins eventually builds this up into an ending of genuinely Mahlerian tragedy.

And then we arrive at love at a distance. “Love Letters” appears here in its original form, complete with the prelude set aside by Ketty Lester and all those who followed her (although the harp arpeggio in this version isn’t that far removed from doo wop), and it’s a pleasure to be reminded of how good this prelude is: “The sky may be starless, the night may be moonless/But deep in my heart there’s a glow,” and Nat takes his time to allow the weight of his happiness to sink in: “You love me because”…then a pause the length of the universe…”you told me so.” “Love Letters” includes some of the best Jenkins/Cole conversations; Cole’s “I memorise every line” is answered by Jenkins’ scanning string section acting as his intent eyes, his “I kiss the name” by a resolving, deep major chord and his “that you sign” by Jenkins’ shivering, descending flourish of a signature.

Even “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is taken in the same, luxuriously patient way, with some markedly rhetorical strings from Jenkins; Cole is alone again, but naturally unshaken and still utterly convinced that he is right to wait (“I’m through with flirting”); he is perfectly happy to be “home about eight, just me and my radio” for however many years he’ll have to do it because he is saving his love for the right person and has both patience and unconquerable faith.

“I Thought About Marie,” composed by Jenkins himself, is a nicely soured-turned-to-humble account of the aftermath of a disastrous love; now Cole is having trouble getting to sleep and can’t get this affair out of his mind: “Our love affair had to struggle for existence/And many were the fights we had,” he observes stoically, but soon confesses that “it wasn’t too bad.” He can even work humour into his dignity, with the lines “Though she told me we would meet again when the rivers all run dry/And I told her I would see her when there was snow in mid-July,” but still he’s sad, and he resigns himself to reconciliation as an alternative to the unthinkable – “Still, your pride looks small at midnight/And I’m tired of being alone/So I thought of Marie/And reached for the ‘phone,” into which quatrain Cole manages to work double entendres, Shakespearean melancholy and rekindled hope and desire.

Fittingly, there then comes “At Last,” in which all the desires and pledges of the record finally come good and are answered and reciprocated. Cole sings it rather as Robert Wyatt sings Chic’s “At Last I Am Free,” and he can hardly see in front of him either; he reels in stunned disbelief at the blueness of the blue sky, can’t believe that “life is like a song,” and the song’s blues undertones slowly recede as a caravan of loneliness no longer to be maintained. “I found a dream that I could speak to,” Cole gasps,” I found a thrill to press my cheek to” – and Jenkins’ orchestra quivers like the brightest of planets on Cole’s “you smiled.” “And here we are in heaven” he sighs with satisfaction and fulfilment; Jenkins’ concluding smile of a major sixth the most heartwarming of happy endings.

Then Cole casts his glance out into the world, and upon others not yet quite convinced by love. “It’s All In The Game” is the only track to vary in tempo – it is taken as a courtly waltz – but Cole’s generosity and reassurance are as open as ever; yes there will be arguments, but it will all work in the end and nothing will be lost. Jenkins almost exceeds himself here with the mighty flourish of acappella, rubato strings midsong – and provides another final smile of reassurance. “When Sunny Gets Blue” is a song full of tricky harmonic and rhythmic contours and Jenkins’ strings are perhaps a little too prosaic here – descending cascades for “rain begins to fall” etc. – but Cole even brings a pregnant hint of Scott Walker to this troubled and dark song (“She breathes a sigh of sadness/Like the wind that stirs the trees,” not to mention “weird and haunting melodies”). Yet he climaxes the song with an outward prayer: “Hurry new love, hurry here” so that Sunny might be saved.

Finally it is left to the title song to sum up all of the album’s threads and Cole casts his knowing smile back towards us, with a song quite startlingly current in its intent: “What does it matter if we’re rich or we’re poor?/Fortune, fame, they never endure/Love is the thing” – and he emphasises that latter phrase twice, with infinite gentleness. “What good is money if your heart isn’t right?” he asks rhetorically. “Here in your arms I’m wealthy tonight.” Once again, the declaration of lasting and permanent values (“When youth’s had its fling…love is the thing”). In many senses this song – music by Victor Young, words by Ned Washington – also looks forward to 1967 (“While others fight for power/We can walk among the flowers/Knowing that the best thing in life is free…love for you and me”) as much as 2008: “And even though our castles crumble and fall/We have the right to laugh at them all” – although Cole is meticulously careful not to laugh, knowing that he, that they, are so much better than that “for love is still king.” Jenkins’ strings negotiate the loveliest of bridges leading to a key change, and he and Cole leave us with a solo violin reaching towards the heavens – and that same two-note semitone motif, now voiced by the harp, in a major key. One of the most beautiful and giving of all number one albums.