Monday, 14 December 2009

Jim REEVES: According To My Heart

(#68: 12 July 1969, 4 weeks)

Track listing: According To My Heart/Don’t You Want To Be My Girl/Don’t Tell Me/You’ll Never Be Mine Again/I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time/If You Were Mine/Don’t Ask Me Why/Stand At Your Window/What Would You Do/I Can’t Fly

We hear bold fiddles and steel guitar with an unexpectedly bold, youthful and high-pitched voice confidently riding the crests of this song of hope (“The future will be bright”), already knowing enough about the emotional and rhetorical structures of pop singing to coast along his three-note, trisyllabic ascents to the words “love” and “heart.” Musically this is Bob Wills/Hank Williams liveliness, but the voice at this stage is still lending itself more towards the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart – what annotator Charles Weaver rather sniffily refers to as purveying a “pseudo-popular singing style” – full of anxious life and partially fulfilled optimism.

This is Jim Reeves, in 1955, singing “According To My Heart,” and it’s a startlingly raw Jim Reeves to those who know only his later, more velvety work. Fresh off his stint as the singing host of the radio show Louisiana Hayride and newly signed to RCA, here is someone still in the process of forging his own style, finding his way out of his influences and adding a few more askew influences on his way to a smoother individuality.

The album to which that song lent its title was a budget-priced reissue of a 1960 compilation of odds and sods – B-sides, previously unreleased tracks, etc. – issued in the immediate wake of his big crossover hit “He’ll Have To Go.” In the wake of Nashville Skyline, and in light of the fact that as man landed on the Moon this was the most popular album in Britain, it is tempting to regard According To My Heart as a backwards glance towards the beginning of its remarkable decade, in order to assess how far anyone, or anything, had come.

It was, of course, also the second posthumous UK number one album, and as with JFK there is a case for saying that Reeves represented a lost idol for many people – particularly those of Irish Catholic descent – who would have preferred a sixties with rather than without him. In entry #50 I touched upon the popularity of country-derived music in the community of Irish immigrants who settled in the north of England and in Scotland after the war and particularly throughout the sixties and seventies; since I grew up in west central Scotland I can attest that country was the dominant music, the music most heard and loved, where I lived, to a far greater extent than rock or pop. This is unsurprising given that much of the architecture of country music owes its being to the music which the Scots and Irish had already brought over with them to the States in the nineteenth century. And the Jim Reeves constituency in Britain, though not exclusively northern based, was certainly weighed in great favour towards the north and the Celtic contingent in particular. The works of James Kelman, for instance, certainly underline what a crucial, and perhaps life-preserving, tonic country music could be to the downtrodden working classes of Glasgow; see the tenement shebeen which climaxes A Disaffection, or its use as Sammy’s main guide back into the world in How Late It Was, How Late.

This compilation serves several useful purposes, not the least of which is providing a fuller formative picture of the younger Reeves, although, as with Nashville Skyline, its ten tracks collectively clock in at around the 27-minute mark. The title track is by far the record’s most optimistic, but the mostly major key-biased, midtempo Western swing-mutating-into-C&W template holds firm throughout. “Don’t You Want To Be My Girl” introduces the record’s first degree of emotional ambiguity. Recorded in 1960, the track demonstrates how Reeves had already begun to assimilate the influences of Crosby and Sinatra into his technique; now he is assuming his more familiar guise, crooning closely and softly into the microphone, although his more fortissimo moments, as Weaver asserts, owe a good deal to what Weaver calls “those fence-busting innovators,” and in particular Eddy Arnold.

If Reeves is smoother here, however, he is also more afraid, and more elusive. He is expressing sympathy towards a woman whose man doesn’t – we are asked to presume – treat her as she ought to be treated and prematurely offering his replacement hand; the pedal steel raises a quizzical eyebrow at his “He’s gonna drop you…he told me himself.” His three-note descent to contrabass on the “love” of “nobody hides a love” is not absent of threat or menace. In “Don’t Tell Me,” conversely, he is the one who has been cuckolded. Sharply picked out lead guitar notes do a more explicit job of emphasising Reeves’ concealed (by regret) rage; his “Don’t you realise” is agonised, high, and he can barely conceal the hatred underpinning the phrase “snuggles closer and laughs at every silly little line.”

“You’ll Never Be Mine Again,” structurally not dissimilar to Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” complete with call and response backing singers, has Reeves in a superficially more resigned mood, but again he is in tatters over this “someone else” who keeps materialising like an unwelcome pursuer from an unspecified past. He trembles palpably on the “pretend” of “pretend that your world is mine,” and by the time we reach “Then my world will come to an end” we realise we are dealing with a spirit as troubled, and perhaps as paranoid, as that of Roy Orbison.

“I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time” is the album’s keynote song, and the only one not specifically concerned with love (apart from a crucial couplet – “I had a sweetheart/But I was unfaithful”); here Reeves is Everyman, down from a mansion to his last dime, fighting with the Grim Reaper and walking with the Master in the same Dark Valley, but peacefully impatient to taste “Eden’s green pastures”; here is the aged wanderer of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the scarred Harding, who has endured everything and is not entirely sure whether he has learned anything. The approaching end of the Worried Man’s road, and the “Woo-ooh” of the female backing singers are the sirens luring him to the final field which might yet turn out to become an ocean.

“If You Were Mine” sees us back with the exuberant mid-fifties Reeves, promising the world to his as yet uncommitted hopeful Other; his “before” in “you’ve ever been loved before” is positively lascivious, and his hyperactive “Mine MINE mine!” remarkably virile. But in “Don’t Ask Me Why” he’s won her, and she’s playing around, and there’s nothing he can do about it; he struggles to preserve his countenance but the high, gasping “MIGHT” of “You might as well ask me why I breathe” and its counterpoint, low register, clenched “breathe” in the same line document a mind in turmoil. “…or why I live at all,” he continues; and the “calls” in the second middle eight (“answer when she calls”) is sustained beyond tolerable length and vividly despondent.

“Stand At Your Window,” despite or because of its enthusiastic boys together harmonies on the title, is more disturbing still. She is in her mansion – another mansion, you may note – and he is standing beneath it, making a sinister deal of the contrast between the light in her window and the darkness of his soul in the gutter underneath. Despite the slightly incongruous rolling piano, this is an uneasy portrait of what is essentially a stalker – but I am also reminded of a Canadian who began his career in the fifties with the Buckskin Boys, who a lifetime later would write an astonishing song-cum-epitaph apologising to his would-be Other for ignoring her while she stood beneath his window, with her bugle and her drum, while he was waiting for the miracle to come. Leonard Cohen narrowly escapes direct inclusion in this tale since Songs From A Room had been kept off number one two months earlier by, successively, the Seekers and the Moody Blues, but the streams have to be taken into full account.

In “What Would You Do,” Reeves finally owns up. “You call me a cheater,” he sings, humbly (Weaver refers to these “humble true-love ballads” as being the polar opposite of the “beat-dominated charts of today”), caught out, before continuing, slightly more bravely, “Well, maybe that’s true.” “But…” he explains, “…with heaven at your fingertips – what would you do?” He has surrendered to his baser instincts, and perhaps located his greater ecstasy in doing so, and all he can now do is fumble with reasoning and excuses, the underlying subtext being: really, you’re no better, are you?

Lena points out that the subject matter of these songs – losing love from nearly every possible angle – and the song titles themselves would have been entirely fitting for a group like the Wedding Present; again, David Gedge, growing up in the Leeds of the sixties and seventies, could hardly have failed to absorb Reeves’ music in his youth (and we think also of Morrissey and Marr’s parents on the other side of the Pennines, not to mention Richard Hawley in Sheffield, and many, many others, John Lydon and Shane MacGowan included). But Reeves never deals in self-pity or explicit grief; his final word on this record is a resigned, regretful shrug of his shoulders (even though he is clearly reddening with fury underneath). In “I Can’t Fly” he accuses his soon-to-be-forsaken partner of wanting him to be “perfect,” and as the honky tonk rolls under the third verse he apologises, in a manner not entirely bereft of anger, “You’re looking for an angel, and I’m sorry I can’t fly.” He bids a sardonic farewell as she goes on looking for “that perfect guy” and comments “I hope his wings are pretty.”
What strikes me most about According To My Heart as a record is the complete lack of a barrier between Reeves and the listener. Lena reckons his voice and timbre are not dissimilar to Kermit the Frog (emphatically not intended to be an insult) and maybe his manner was the same; someone, like Kermit, who is perfectly comfortable with who and what he is. As far as his wider impact as an artist and general influence is concerned, we will be returning to his work in due course, but I should point out at this juncture that it would be a mistake to put Reeves under the same cut-price MoR banner as Ray Conniff; indeed, this album and its predecessor are polar opposites in virtually every way. Conniff, the urbanite from Massachusetts, fashioning meticulous, distant, polished music that breathes aspirational, white collar, conservative; whereas Reeves, the country boy from Texas, is distinctly blue collar, working class, Democrat-voting, communal music (unsurprisingly Reeves was a JFK voter). We think of ruminative figures at the bar; lonesome long-distance truck drivers, men with plenty of time to think and to drink. Music to enable commensality, the communal breaking of bread, and sipping of wine, at the common table. And this music spoke more directly to them than many others that could be nominated.