The Limits Of Soul

Discussion in the comments box here about “Eleanor Rigby” and the possibility of somebody covering it well. LondonLee posits the line “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” as a sticking point. I’d agree, but not because it’s a bad line. I think it’s an excellent line; succinct, evocative and memorable. As a child it creeped me out (a face in a jar – eww), before I was old enough the recognise what it was talking about, the gentility public reserve of the English when out ‘on their best’.

“Eleanor Rigby” it seems to me is a song about the impossibility of living without communicating, the horror of lives spent in self-made boxes. Soul music is a music about nothing but communication, communication that – at its peak – bursts out of the words it’s using and transmits sheer feeling. So for that specific reason I don’t think it’s possible to do an effective soul version of the Beatles’ song. But there’s more to it: “Eleanor Rigby” is a character sketch, it has to be sung at a distance (so the slightly fussy arrangement and Scouse deadpan suit it perfectly). And my wider question is – can soul music handle ‘character songs’ easily? Can a music so much about the ‘I’ and ‘You’ step back and not get involved?

(One counter-example that comes to mind is my favourite Stevie Wonder song, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”, but that record’s power comes from Wonder’s obvious and impotent pain as he describes the archetype in question, rather than the character sketch itself.)