JUDY COLLINS – “Send In The Clowns”

I’ve long found sentiment and melodrama in pop music enormously appealing, so it stands to reason I’d find myself gravitating sooner or later to show tunes. There those two qualities stand rescued from a stultifying consensus that sees sentiment as debased escapism and melodrama as vulgar inauthenticity, and replaces them with respectively ’emotion’ and ‘soulfulness’.

But if sentiment and melodrama aren’t how we live our lives, they’re often how we’d like to. If life’s going to hurt, and like it or not it is, then can’t we dream about taking the blows with the poise and presence Judy Collins shows here? Relationships may corrode, tongues may tie, and reality may well end up as messy as some lo-fi indie jam, but there can’t be a lover alive who’s not wanted to take their final bow properly, rather than shuffle offstage with a plaster knife half-falling from their back. That’s when you need songs like this, pulled out of their narrative and ready to be transplanted into yours. Showstoppers like “Send In The Clowns” tell you more about heroics than a guitar ever could: when I was revising for my University history finals I played “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” obsessively, trying to find a way into how Alexander The Great might have thought and felt. God knows whether it helped, but then stupid gestures are what songs like this are about, too.

It’s all in the voice. The music is sumptuous, of course, but great musical songs make immense demands on their singers – technical precision possibly, but emotional command and dramatic talent for certain. That theatrical expressiveness, that knowing when to trick the voice away from being just a melody vehicle, is something I always love to find in pop music – it can redeem an otherwise bland song entirely. Too often it’s missing, though: it’s enough to sound like you mean it, or sound like you know what people who meant it sounded like, and no need to go any further. Even you know she’s just an MOR singer doing some big theatre number, Collins sounds like she means it from the second her lips open, and then she goes on to demonstrate, with restraint and resignation, how little that matters.

One of the finest things I’ve heard all year. Thanks, Mike.