Monday 24 December 2012

Johnny MATHIS: Tears And Laughter

(#224: 22 March 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Don’t Give Up On Us/Goodbye To Love/Gone, Gone, Gone/Midnight Blue/Solitaire/The Hungry Years/Alone Again (Naturally)/Too Much, Too Little, Too Late (with Deniece Williams)/Without You/It’s Too Late/Laughter In The Rain/You Are The Sunshine Of My Life/Everything Is Beautiful/The Most Beautiful Girl/Betcha, By Golly, Wow/Just The Way You Are (with Deniece Williams)/And I Love You So/Song Of Joy/Life Is A Song Worth Singing/You Light Up My Life

(Author’s Note: the above is the actual track listing as sequenced on the record itself. The listing on the rear sleeve transposes the positioning of “You Light Up My Life” and “Betcha, By Golly, Wow”)

When do the eighties begin, again? If it feels like 1977 once more, then that indicates that a lot of people weren’t ready to make any leap forward, great or even mediocre. There was still a lot of clinging to the past, a dread of letting go, and I suppose this album and its two predecessors directly addressed or reassured the frightened people who bought them; the Shadows doing “Cavatina” and “Bright Eyes” and suggesting to their listeners: don’t worry, we’re going into tomorrow with you, and we’re only fractionally less afraid than you are.

But whereas the Shadows only really sought to tell their audience what they already knew and believed, then Johnny Mathis’ second number one album is an altogether more complicated affair, grappling with “The Seventies” and wondering whether it was ever worth the struggle. The cover of Tears And Laughter speaks for itself, and I doubt whether anyone would get away with a cover like that now. I fully expected this “Collection of 20 Songs” to be more of the same; a Mathis Collection II, an update with cover versions so cosy you wouldn’t notice that “Betcha, By Golly, Wow” had been recycled from the first Collection. Listen to it, glumly tick it off, assuage the impatient wait for 1980’s more “serious” records to appear.

But I didn’t realise there would be so much music on the record. Although only a single disc, Tears And Laughter’s running time clocks in at over 73 minutes, only marginally shorter than Tusk. Presumably shoving all twenty tracks onto one record was done for economic reasons – there was a recession on at the time – but it is difficult to escape the idea that this really should have been another double album, divided as it is into two distinct sides, one of “Tears” and the other of “Laughter.”

In other words, grieve in sorrow and then find redemption in new love. This would have been a tall order for any singer to meet; the ideal would possibly have been a Sinatra double comprising No One Cares and Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and if that’s a pretty high place to set the bar, then that still underplays how excoriating and intense, and at times unbearable, a listen No One Cares is – the album pointedly did not chart in Britain, indicating that Sinatra, with Gordon Jenkins, had on the record gone a little too far for comfort. Far from being a simple new volume of “saloon songs,” as much as the cover and Ralph J Gleason’s sleevenote try to persuade us otherwise, No One Cares plays like a prayer for the dying – in the middle of a brooding “Stormy Weather,” Sinatra suddenly cries out: “Can’t go ON! Everything I Had Is GONE!,” and few sequences of music are as harrowing as the closing one-two punch (on the original record; overlook the pointless and mood-busting bonus track tacked onto the end of the reissue) of “I’ll Never Smile Again” and “None But The Lonely Heart” where you can actually hear Sinatra cracking up – his “I’m so in love with you” on the former, the way his voice petrifies into bereaved numbness at the end of the latter.

In truth, Mathis does not really attain that level on Tears And Laughter. And before you rush off and declare this a Lost/Neglected Classic, it is my melancholy duty to point out that, with the scope of the ambition that I think is at work here – even though it is basically another compilation of album tracks encompassing the years 1970-79 – Mathis doesn’t always pull it off. This isn’t always his fault either, as he frequently has to struggle against insipid, Formica arrangements made to sound resonant on sophisticated seventies music centres.

But his “Goodbye To Love” compounds both angles of the problem. He doesn’t replicate the distressed continuity of Karen Carpenter’s long vocal lines; he takes breaths between syllables, strategically reorganises the lyric so that he can pause. In addition, there is no response to Tony Peluso’s two guitar solos, the underlying rage articulating the singer’s buried nihilism; instead we get a slushy choir, sub-Alpert trumpets and anaesthetising strings merely reproducing the song’s main melody. There is no real evidence here that this is a singer at the end of his tether. Likewise, compared to Nilsson, his “Without You” sounds as though sung by an army of robots.

Surprisingly, he makes quite a good fist of “Alone Again (Naturally)”; although he struggles (naturally) with such un-American lyrical tropes as “in the lurch,” he seems to recognise what the song is trying to say and actually brings out its real grief; by the last verse of serial parental bereavement he sounds in palpable pain. The trouble is not so much with the ridiculous alto flutes and (again) choir who drown his sorrows in magenta Crown paint, but that the song has far more emotional impact when heard in the composer’s own deadpan, matter-of-fact reading; a British sheen to cover a very Irish pain, the original’s magic lies in the picture of a fairly radical lyric dressed up as an amiable slice of early seventies easy listening.

He does better with Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue” since the song’s post-Bacharach melodic and rhythmic twists do bolster up the underlying existence of some kind of hope (although, as done by Mathis, the Thom Bell influence is also very apparent). Of the two Neil Sedaka ballads on the “Tears” side – and indeed they are set side by side – Mathis’ “Solitaire” is slightly overplayed (his groan of “WHENT” in the phrase “that went unshared,” his mockingbird sustenato of “sleep” in the phrase “each sleepless night”), an approach not helped by the three ascending chord changes at the end, nor by the needlessly busy guitar heard throughout. “The Hungry Years” is more convincing (as is the electric guitar work, although the arrangement generally dies of surfeit of syrup); something in the bends of Mathis’ voice convinces you that this is not the sort of Things Were So Much Better When We Had Nowt indulgence written by someone who possesses the luxury of never having to worry about being poor again, but that the composer’s hungry years were actually not that far away; prior to his Carole King-esque reinvention and resurgence, Sedaka’s stock in the early seventies had sunk so low that he was compelled to go and live in Britain, as he couldn’t get any work in the States, and before being rediscovered by 10cc and others, he played the grim round of northern working men’s clubs, put up with the bingo calls, the raffle draws, the drunks who called out for “Take Good Care Of My Baby” or “Song Sung Blue.” Most importantly, Mathis’ impassioned plea of “Honey, take me home” takes us back to that state of mind we cannot escape.

“Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” gave Mathis his only US #1 single, in 1978, but it has to be said that Deniece Williams’ voice runs numerous embarrassing rings around his – does she really sing, at one point, “The kids are gone”? – and that, although Mathis has to work harder with his voice than he probably ever had to do previously, his lament can’t keep up with hers, and the incompatibility is clear; for this update of “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” Deniece really needed a Marvin Gaye to make us believe “his” side of the story. Still, it is instructive to hear this reluctant, yet agonising, acknowledgement that times have changed and passed away set against his own 1971 reading of “It’s Too Late”; the cumulative feeling that this sequence of music gives us is that we can’t go back, to the seventies or anywhere else; we have to move on, and by God does it hurt – hear how Mathis hangs onto his last “late” like a fingernail slowly scraping its way down the Grand Canyon.

If there is any scant hope left here, then it is with the record’s most recent song, and Mathis’ last significant UK hit single, 1979’s “Gone, Gone, Gone,” in which he tackles disco. Actually he does pretty well against the busy arrangement, particularly the extraordinary guitar which pans from channel to channel, offering skeletal/prototype glide-cum-Britfunk – it is like a cross between Stimulin and My Bloody Valentine, the giveaway lines of “Oooh yes, I tried to change her” and “I just cannot seem to face reality,” and Mathis’ anxiously sustained whimper of “Baaaaby!”

But the “Laughter” side doesn’t really resolve anything either – how could it, featuring as it does “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a song representing the very antithesis of happy (even though the “I lost my head and I said some things” line chimes with the belated admission of guilt in “Gone, Gone, Gone”)? There are attempts at happiness with the juxtaposition of rain (a third Sedaka song) and sunshine, but you never quite believe him.

Moreover, it is clear from this side, which really doesn’t contain much, if anything, in the way of “laughter,” that Mathis is looking towards a more universal definition of happiness. Hence the unfortunate appearance of Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful,” where Salvation Army brass band and gospel choir replace the kids – and what a double-edged song it is, implying that the listener should look beyond the length of someone’s hair or the colour of their skin (the implication being that these things in themselves are somehow “bad” – good grief). It irritated me with its phony sententiousness when Stevens did it in 1970 and it still does.

But nothing after it is quite free of darkness, least of all “And I Love You So” with its references to shadows and night, or Mathis and Williams’ duet on Billy Joel’s rather sour “Just The Way You Are,” although the latter does improve on the original because (a) Deniece seems to be answering Mathis back on all that tiresome Archie Bunker stuff about not wanting Clever Conversation, and (b) Williams’ former employer Stevie Wonder, entirely uncredited, pops up on harmonica.

And then the record gets really strange.

First off, we get “Song Of Joy,” a full-blown adaptation of the closing section of Beethoven’s Ninth that I remember being originally done by a Spanish musician called Miguel Rios, though I don’t recall him going as far as Mathis’ nearly five-minute version, with its solemn ‘cello prelude, its overblown symphony orchestra and choir, its rhetorical pauses and the occasional reminder that Brian Wilson learned something about song construction and arrangement from old Ludwig. And, indeed, Mathis’ own stern cry for peace, understanding and a New Age. All rather too much for a side supposedly devoted to “laughter”; when do we get to “Anything Goes”?

But then, everything goes.

“Life Is A Song Worth Singing” is the same Thom Bell/Linda Creed song subsequently recorded by Teddy Pendergrass under the supervision of Gamble and Huff as the title track of his 1979 album. But this is the original, from 1973, arranged and produced by Bell himself, and presented here in its full, uncut, six-minute-plus length – and it is the reason why I urge you to run out after Christmas and track this album down, for it is the long-lost, if more proactive, twin of the Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round.”

It begins with a long, abstract introduction filled with howling winds and seemingly random synthesiser notes – what is this, “The Electrician”? – before the rest of the instruments make their separate entrances; low, Norman Whitfield-like strings, then electric piano, bass and vibes, followed by a surprisingly rockist guitar – what is this, the Doors playing “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”? – and, thereafter, clavinet and French horns, then the rest of the string section, and finally full brass, complete with trumpet fanfares. At last – nearly three minutes into the song – Mathis’ voice enters, and it is dour, accusatory, even, at times, mocking (“Too BAD!”). “Only you generate the power to change what you do with your life,” he intones, and although this may be a reflection of the late Ms Creed’s rather dreary proto-Reagan/Romney-isms (a dogged homily-like pseudo-righteousness that goes right through “People” and “The Greatest Love Of All”: nowhere, I think, did she author a song entitled “People Do Not Choose To Live Like This” or “It’s The System, Stupid”), the larger meaning in this context is clear – throughout the record, Mathis has been wallowing in something very near to self-pity, avoiding the consequences of his own actions, but now he realises that everything has to change, a challenge musically posed by the giant, hovering string section question mark which concludes the peace.

Finally, there is the modest catharsis of “You Light Up My Life” with its references to filling the singer’s nights with song – yes, it’s probably another Singer Addresses Their Audience Directly coda – and also including the entire album’s turnaround line, “Could it be, finally, I’m turning to home?” In some ways I find this closing sequence of songs quite moving; in tandem with the others, we are presented with a sort of early eighties easy listening precursor to A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Probably Mathis should have stayed on the Philly tip for longer; and the whole 1981 album that he cut with the Chic Organization, but which was never released, should have been made available. If the golf club didn’t understand, then the next generation surely would have done. But, with Tears And Laughter, we are presented with a picture of a performer who realises that what he has been doing all these years may never really have been enough; note his teeth-down emphasis on the word “gay” in “Alone Again (Naturally)” for possible proof of this.