Saturday, November 21, 2009
#39. 'Don't I give you what you need?'
There's something arresting about simplicity. I may go on and on about the more ornately produced numbers that are myriad throughout this project, but truth be told ome of the best songs of the decade are the ones that do more with less. It's really about what's essential to a song's being, whether it's integral to throw the kitchen sink into the works for the song to reach its full potential or if it works better without anything in excess of a guitar riff and a vocal line. Some songs work better with all the bells and whistles thrown in and other would be stopped dead in their tracks if anything was added to them, and overdoing it on a production level has killed plenty of good to great songs in the past. I don't know why, but it seems to happen more often in country music than anywhere else. Or maybe its just that the desire to be part of that homogeneous mass of sound-alikes that seem to make up 90% of any modern country chart winds up making the few songs that try to keep it simple sound light years more evolved. Either way, simplicity is a fucking virtue in country music these days, and if you want an example of why you really don't need to look much further than "Stay."
It's not hard to imagine another act ruining this song. I can see it now; a big, brash vocal performance, huge melodramatic strings that swell at the predetermined moments of greatest importance and a major-key modulation in the last chorus to drive home the happy ending where the other woman learns to love herself. That's the way "Stay" would go in any other hands, and godadmn if the thought of the song being devalued like that make me angry. Instead, Sugarland's core duo scale the song down to just guitarist Kristian Bush's simple, resonant guitar playing and vocalist Jennifer Nettles' powerhouse performance and a little bit of barely audible organ over the choruses. And by god does it turn the song into a masterpiece, one of the most instantly arresting country ballads to be released this decade. By taking it down to the bare essentials and maybe even stripping some of those away, the duo turn what could have been a disastrous exercise in melodrama into something genuinely affecting and remarkable.
It helps that Jennifer Nettles is the one singing it too. Outside of peak era Reba or maybe Martina McBride I can't imagine any other country girl selling this song half as effectively as Nettles does, mainly because I can't think of any currently active female country singers who can pull off the required level of emotional transparency needed to sell it. Nettles' vocals generally have an air of effortlessness to them, and here that effortlessness translates to a genuine lack of affect and overall nakedness to the performance. I never get the feeling that she's putting on a face here is what I'm saying; far as she's concerned Nettles is living out these lyrics as she sings them and it shows so vividly in her performance that it's impossible to imagine anyone else even trying to replace her. The lyrics in any other hands would be wrung for melodrama, but Nettles gets genuine pathos out of them. The vocals in any other hands would wind up multi-tracked and overrun with vocal gymnastics, but Nettles gets more feeling out of a single vocal track without many extraneous vocal runs. Anyone else would have turned it into theater, but Nettles makes it feel like life. The whole thing is gloriously underplayed and the song benefits greatly from it.
There's also the fact that its subject matter is a bit more novel than your average country song. Sure, plenty of songs deal with affairs, but I can't think of any others that spend so much time actually humanizing the other woman in the classic scenario. Having her go through the same sort of growth that's usually reserved for the spurned wife, realizing that the only way she's ever going to be happy is if she extricates herself from the situation, growing a backbone and walking away from it without hysterics - this is the rare case where the last chorus reversal actually works, mostly because Nettles' vocal performance makes it feel earned. It's not the most revolutionary concept, granted, but it's certainly not the kind of thing you hear every other hour on your local country station, and like I said, Nettles fucking sells it, making the material feel so much more vital than it has the right to be.
Even if it only initially stood out to me because it sounded so foreign to the world of country music- though truth be told the real hook was the video...seeing one of the most effortlessly sexy women in any type of music break down mid chorus still kinda kills me to this day - "Stay" revealed itself to be so much more than just an atypical country ballad. The bare-bones arrangement was only ever noteworthy in the context of the overproduced mass of country radio circa late 2007, and the fact htat out of that context it still sounds like a triumph of excellent songwriting and perfect arrangement is as welcome as it is kinda surprising. I wouldn't have expected a song like this so high up the list even when I was first falling for "Stay", so for it have that level of - oh fuck, there's no other way to say it... - staying power is a truly impressive feat.