Some of my favourite soul performances go to the ragged-throated extremes of the style – Lorraine Ellison’s apocalyptic “Stay With Me”, for instance. But more of them are like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, whose emotions are just as intense but more strictly controlled.
In fact the impact of Gaye’s song is in the way the singer enacts resisting the intolerable pressure of the situation – the sound of him not cracking up, howling or hollering or exploding with pain, is as powerful and wracking as the dams actually bursting. His only chance – whether of winning her back or just keeping his dignity (by the end it doesn’t necessarily matter) – is to stay reasonable, to not break down. The music – measured, smooth, almost smoochy – taunts his efforts. The backing singers hardly break a sweat. Stray words of Gaye’s bubble into wails or snarls, he ends bitter and defeated, but he keeps control. His reward is simply a limit on his humiliation, and the power of the song is in selling us a situation where that really is worth fighting so hard for.