The opening of “Tears Of A Clown” is fussy, polite, slightly forced in its capering eagerness to please – a great way of introducing a song about putting a false face on to fool the world you’re happy. This theme was a regular one for Smokey Robinson – “Tracks Of My Tears” explores it too, and he’d used the Pagliacci line before word-for-word – but this is its best-realised outing. The track wears its intricacies on the surface, dazzling you – its interlocking arrangement of lead and backing vocals, for example, which is exhilarating and feels like you’re listening to someone juggling. Or the long tightropes of metaphor Robinson wobbles across. We listeners are witnessing the clown perform ourselves, firmly in the position of “the public”, and we want to see the show again and again. It’s only when Robinson’s voice catches angrily before the chorus (“I’m HURT and I want you so BAD”) that we get a glimpse of what’s beneath the make-up.
(It’s just occurred to me that “Tears” might work – unintentionally – as a metaphor for Motown itself. A resurrected mid-60s album track, its brisk clockwork jollity sounds odd against the heavier directions the likes of Norman Whitfield had been moving the label in. The company was changing fast – the old revue/production line model breaking down with the big stars (Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye) angling for more autonomy or bigger billing. The singer of “Tears Of A Clown” is trapped within a similar roadshow role, forced to entertain and unable to show the public his more soulful side. The huge pop success of “Tears” as a somewhat bitter farewell to the old Motown, perhaps? I’m reluctant to embrace this idea, mostly because it’s post-facto stretching but partly because I’ve never liked the idea that Motown’s version of soul was less ‘authentic’ for being more pop. So I drop it in here only as a stray thought.)