A good ballad is worth more than a dozen great dance tunes. Not that I don’t like music that moves my ass, but at the end of the day, when you’re coming home, escaping whatever craziness transpired in your life or the world at large, it’s so much more satisfying sitting down with something that eases the mind even as it pulls at the heart.

And I realized something important in this: when I first got into writing about music, over a dozen years ago, I was writing almost exclusively on hip-hop and I think it’s because I found the music intellectually stimulating enough to want to commit thoughts about it on paper. I actually liked hip-hop more for the sonic element but when it came to writing about it, it was always the ideas and context that made hip-hop compelling.

But as I’ve gotten older, my interests as a writer/critic have shifted away from an intellectual engagement and become far more about tackling songs and music on an emotional level, fighting myself to express the ineffable in terms of what a song makes me feel like and why. It’s still an intellectual exercise of course but fundamentally, the kind of music that interests me more and more is soul, precisely because 1) it has that poignancy often built in and 2) the back stories behind the artists form an important dimension to how a song is understood or received. Hip-hop is still intellectually interesting – at times – but for the most part, there’s so little hip-hop I hear that I engage with emotionally.

I don’t know if this is some kind of personal paradigm shift or just a momentary realignment but seriously – I’m appreciating slower, soulful songs so much more right now and am so thankful to have new things to listen and discover as a result. Here’s a trio of songs that have been haunting me lately.

Roberta Flack: Gone Away
From Chapter Two (Atlantic, 1970)

It’s hard to go wrong, covering a song written by/for the Impressions but in revisiting “Gone Away,” Flack has the benefit of more sophisticated production and her own, incomparable voice and presence. I admit, the first time I heard this, I was a little thrown off by how the song builds and evolves but with every subsequent listen, I realize how beautifully it unfolds and balances a variety of musical moments that powerfully build towards that bridge with the heavy horns and Flack’s soaring vocals. I must say though: for a song about loss, it doesn’t feel that way…it sounds instead like something celebrating the glory of love (not that the two are mutually exclusive) and by song’s end you don’t feel sadness but something closer to awe.

Nancy Sinatra: As Tears Go By
From Boots (Reprise, 1966)

My friend Hua sent this to me and at first, I was a little skeptical since I wasn’t sure how good Nancy Sinatra covering the Rolling Stones could really be but by the 1st minute, I put aside all my preconceptions and let the song gently drift over me. It has a light and airy quality but it’s not slight in the least. The echo chamber Sinatra sings into lends itself to a certain dreaminess but Sinatra’s voice is also so deadpan, that even the bossa nova accompaniment isn’t as frolicking as it might be otherwise. This conjures wet streets lit by streetlamps, as shot by Chris Doyle for a Wong Kar Wai film (or the outro credits for the unwritten Kill Bill 3 if you want to get all Tarantino about it).

Marvin Gaye: Just To Keep You Satisfied (Alt. Vocal)
From Let’s Get It On (Deluxe Edition) (Motown, 1973/2001)

Let me start by saying, I had no idea this was a cover until I was listening through the reissued Deluxe version of Let’s Get It On from 2001 (the whole CD is essential for any Gaye fan. Seriously)
which includes two earlier versions of the song by The Originals and The Monitors. However, if you listen to its antecedents, Gaye’s version shares only the barest of things in similarity. He completely takes the song over and remakes with his own sensibility.
(It pays to read liner notes more closely and avoid embarrassing errors).

For an album all about seduction and sex, this song is like a bucket of ice water to your groin. It’s also one of the most devastating songs about the end of love, not the least of which is because it’s autobiographical. Gaye is clearly singing about the disintegration of his marriage to Anna Gordy (Berry Gordy’s daughterdaughter). Provided, Gaye ended up writing a whole album about their divorce (one of the most brilliant, bizarre and bruising musical projects ever) but for those who can’t take that much despair, “Just To Keep You Satisfied” at least only pummels you in the gut for 4.5 minutes.

It’s remarkable how such an undeniably beautiful song could have been composed for such a terrible event as the death of love and dissolution of a relationship. But this song is absolutely, undeniably beautiful in every element, from Gaye’s unmistakable falsetto, to the soft and sweeping accompaniment. The version I’ve included here is actually an alternative vocal mix which strips the song down to minimal orchestration and lets Gaye’s voice do more of the work. I especially like the overdubbing Gaye does himself, adding layers of his croons in key moments. This doesn’t exist on the album version and I think it loses something for it.

By the way, if you want to know where the song turns, where everything simultaneously stops with a pained breath but also moves forward with a fatalistic certainty, it’s around 2:23 where Gaye, a little out of nowhere, paces out his words carefully and sings in crescendo, “now…it’s…time…for…us…to…say…farewell… farewell my darling…maybe we’ll meet down the line… it’s too late for you and me… it’s too late for you and me… much too late for you and I…”

Destroys me every time.