Emotion vs Technique in Soul Music and its Criticism

Does soul music have soul, and does it matter?

Hear or read most people praising soul music, and they’ll be hyping certain qualities, while some others won’t get a mention. ‘Soul’ is an awkward word anyway: not just a genre, but a quality, something to aspire to, an inherent good, a damning criticism when you say something lacks it – more so if the target of the complaint is black! There’s circularity to some praise: soul records are good because they have soul; and we’ll define soul music as records with soulfulness…

But we know what is meant, really, even if it’s not that simple to pin it down or measure it. We aren’t just dealing with arrangements and modes, we are talking about heartfelt emotions, raw passion, a sincerity of feeling, expressed from the heart in natural ways. I am very doubtful, though, that this has anything to do with soul music and what makes it so wonderful. Vintage soul is my favourite kind of music, especially the Southern stuff in the ’60s and early ’70s – Stax and Hi and all that – but I am deeply suspicious of the way its fans talk about it. This has seeped into the wider discourse too – the emotional angle is by no means restricted to the devotees, experts and critics. You only have to be aware of the existence of live shows to know that we aren’t hearing the real emotions of the performers – no one has three minutes of hardbreak, then three of anger at betrayal, then three of having a party, then three of being deeply in love…

I can’t help thinking about the way football commentators talk about African players – it used to be black players in general in my younger days, but now it seems to have been cut back that far. Lots of natural skill, but do they have the discipline, can they overcome their naivety – about an inch from suggesting that these blackies ain’t too bright, this – can they understand how to play as a team? It doesn’t take a vast amount of insight to spot the racism in all of this. You might not get too many people talking openly like Ron Noades nowadays, with grotesque generalisations dismissing the strength and intelligence of black players, but the ideas are still there, and they smack you in the face every time you watch an African team play. If the players are Europeans, the commentators will frequently admire the technique and tactics and cleverness; if they are African, it’s all defensive naivety and innate exuberance, and you keep half-expecting the commentators to start talking about natural rhythm. I keep feeling as if the pundits are watching a different game from me, one in which the shambolic Germans I can see are replaced by the disciplined, technically superb team being talked about, and the hard-working, technically excellent, well-organised African side have been swapped for this bunch of naive – but naturally talented! – athletes.

Now think of soul music. I think much of its criticism (formal and
informal) does very similar things: the talk is of passion and raw emotion, an innate access to feeling, and not of intelligence and musical technique. I think there are plenty of examples to show how hopelessly distant these ideas are from what is actually happening on the tracks. I’ve picked Al Green’s cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?’ because it’s one of my favourite records, but I also think it may be the best example from the accepted soul canon of a record that has nothing whatsoever to do with this common discourse.

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

Firstly, it’s a cover version: plainly not the sincere and heartfelt expression of Al Green’s pain and anguish, but someone else’s song. And not another raw soul singer’s song, not even a black artiste at all, but one by the Bee Gees, just about as white a band as you could name, a boy-band pop group of brothers from Australia. Obviously the critical framework that’s accreted to soul in the three decades since was virtually non-existent then, so I don’t suppose Green and co. agonised for one second over whether it was right or acceptable or credible to cover a Bee Gees song. It’s a fairly simple little song, very nice melody, it’s about a broken heart, plemty of scope to do things with it – that’ll do. I used to be in a painfully serious Yahoo southern soul group, and I particularly remember their reactions to a new published interview with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. He expressed a liking for various people, by no means all soul types or ‘credible’ artists. Elton John was the name that agitated them most – they were trying to make excuses, looking for a hidden agenda, wondering if there was talk of Elton writing a song for him or working with him. They couldn’t believe that a soul giant could really like Elton’s music, which is surely the obvious and completely plausible explanation. That’s one of the reasons why a cover of a Bee Gees song appealed to me as an example here.

Listen to the way it’s all put together: this isn’t any kind of raw outpouring of anything, this is a measured, restrained, carefully constructed record with some of the most subtle, intelligent playing and production you’ll find anywhere, in any form of music. And the reason Al Green is the perfect singer to address these points is in its clearest form here: yes, he had a great voice, but this isn’t the natural outpouring of romantic pain; it’s not even method acting, where he deliberately feels it and so expresses it; this is the work of a powerful musical intelligence, who has carefully thought about every moment of the song, every word, every sound, and has calculated how to make it work with maximum effect. The feeling comes across, irresistibly and heartbreakingly, but we are doing everyone involved (and musical criticism in general!) a disservice if we stop with that thought. I’m not necessarily claiming the intelligence is all Al Green’s – there is no way of knowing how much it is his thinking and how much it is the producer’s. Some of both, I expect, but I don’t think speculation on this is terribly interesting.

Willie Mitchell produced all the great records on the Hi label. He’d been in music since the ’50s, mostly as a horn player. He understood passion and excitement, but he also had a deep understanding of musicianship, and of a variety of production approaches. I think he was more in tune with the lusher style that rock ‘n’ roll had forced into the background than with the rawness of the great Memphis soul that had dominated, via Stax in particular, for the several years before Hi’s early ’70s glory days. No one made lovelier use in soul music of strings – well, maybe Norman Whitfield, but that’s another argument.

Mitchell not only knew what a good singer sounded like, and had therefore lured Al Green to Memphis (and signed up O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and many other terrific vocalists), but he’d built up great contacts in the local music scene. Peter Guralnik refers to his having brought up the Hodges brothers almost like a parent, and the three of them provide guitar, bass and organ here. Even more importantly, I believe he had worked in the ’50s with a drummer named Al Jackson, and also his son Al Junior, whose regular gig was with the house band at Stax, Booker T & the MGs.

Al Jackson is one of my musical heroes, on more records that I adore than anyone else, and I think he is vastly important here. Hi most regularly used Howard Grimes as a drummer. He was a disciple of Jackson, and Guralnik’s Sweet Soul Music describes him as his ‘rhythmic twin’, but there is an audible difference: maybe not much at all in the beats they generate, but in their touch (I think Jackson’s grip was softer, but that’s a layman’s view). Howard Grimes was a great drummer, but Al Jackson has a delicacy, a subtlety, even a beauty that not only Grimes couldn’t match, but that no one else ever could. You don’t often find drumming lovely, but this is, especially the flawless use of the cymbals. That restraint and control and gentle, almost laid-back touch is vital to this song.

Leroy Hodges was an exceptional bassist, and brother Teenie a great guitarist, but they are mostly backgrounded here. Teenie could draw you into a tune as well as anyone (listen to the peerlessly constructed intro to Al Green’s Love And Happiness), but they aren’t at the front on this one – Teenie plays extremely lightly and simply. Nor is their other brother, Charles, at the front, but his unique use of the organ is maybe at its finest on this. He doesn’t play like everyone else, he rarely plays anything like a tune at all: his organ makes a background sound, much like a colour tone, a wash. One note holds, and switches seamlessly to another with no moment between, no space. When he occasionally does something different, even as simple as a quick run, the contrast is spectacular and thrilling – there’s a moment just over five minutes in where he suddenly plays one unexpected note, to stunning effect.

But there is much more on this record. I’ve always liked bravura moments in pop production (it’s why I love Shadow Morton so – no one threw more in than he did), and Willie Mitchell came up with a few dazzling uses of strings – the pizzicato violin raindrops in Ann Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ are the most famous example, but ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?’ has my favourite such single moment, the extraordinary shimmer of violins representing the breeze just referenced in the lyric, something that always sends a chill down my spine.

Having said all this, we have to note that the singing is at the centre of most pop music, and (its terrific instrumentals notwithstanding) this is arguably more true of soul music than any other form. I wouldn’t wish to neglect my favourite singer, and also the singer is at the centre of what I’m claiming is the big misguided way in which I hear people talk about soul.

I want you to listen to the thought that has gone into every instant of Al Green’s performance, every shift of tone and volume and pace, every intonation, every wordless sound. Dave Marsh has described Al as pop’s greatest solipsist, and that is one way of looking at it – but I think it makes Green’s intensity and the seriousness of his examination of how the particular lyric must feel, and how to express that, into something that sounds like a character flaw. And also, again, I think he doesn’t go far enough: this is full of carefully calculated technical devices. We can call it trickery if you like – I have zero interest in trying to claim that it is genuine, authentic feeling, that Al Green felt anything at all that he expresses here. It makes solipsism a false term: I don’t believe that all he is doing is expressing how he feels, if he is doing that at all; he is finding ways to express what this lyric and song feels like, he is putting those emotions into the song, irrespective of how he might have personally felt at the time it was recorded.

This isn’t an outpouring, it’s a very restrained and subtle performance, especially the very gentle start – it’s a sad and thoughtful mood, dominated by Al’s lovely and light falsetto tones, though he builds to the lower, hoarser tones in places. He almost speaks the first line, quickly and in a near whisper, setting a thoughtful tone from the start. He stays mostly behind the music and even the backing vocals for some while, his voice drifting alongside and behind the tune, carefully synchronising here and there and then going its own way again, a man thinking his way through an impossible problem. The way he breaks up the last word in “How can you mend this broken maa-aa-an?” is perfectly judged, a gentle little example of form and meaning meshing, then the first strain in his voice appears in the next line, “How can a loser ever win?” The hesitancy before the last word in “misty memories of days gone by” is another masterfully modulated touch. By the end he’s bringing it all to bear, the changes of tone, the hesitancies and ad libs, the sweet high voice, the gruffer tones, nearly crying in places, even a strangled scream at 5.26. It’s finally a determined song that looks to a positive future, and he injects real strength and straightforward force into his final “I want to live” as it fades.

other genres

I should note that I am not claiming this gap, between the way experienced and expert musicians put a record together as against how its fans and critics talk about it, as unique to soul music – the raw feelings being valorised are constructed in a slightly different balance in rock, for instance (and no one has ever failed to notice all the technical skills on show there), but the distance and unreality is often much the same. Records are made by professionals in a studio, not by people with powerful feelings instantly picking up their instruments and making some spontaneous sounds from the heart. I just think the gap between the way people talk about music and the way it’s actually made is greater in soul music than any other, and I think the musical skill and intelligence on show in its many great recordings are therefore persistently undervalued, or even not noted at all.