“Sierra” / Boz Scaggs
I instinctively disliked Boz Scaggs from the get-go. In 1976 every kid I knew with middlebrow music tastes owned the same three albums: Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, the Eagle’s Hotel California, and Scaggs’s Silk Degrees. Scaggs’s two big hits, “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” got played ENDLESSLY on AOR radio. To me they both sounded so West Coast, so slick and overproduced, I couldn’t acknowledge the considerable soul groove within them. I hated Scaggs’ voice – it sounded high and forced and half-strangled to me, with extra vibrato laid on for effect. Gack.
So why on earth would I EVER listen to another Boz Scaggs album? Well, thank Alan Price – he covered a Scaggs song named “Some Change” on his 1995 album A Gigster’s Life For Me, and astonished as I was, I had to investigate. (Alan also covered Jackson Browne’s “Say It Isn’t So” on that album, so I had to reconsider my ban against Jackson Browne too -- go figure.) Why did it never occur to me that these artists would be capable of growing and changing the same as me – that they too might have rejected 1970s fashions by now?
Scaggs came out of semi-retirement with his 1994 album Some Change, which I guess is why he'd fallen off my radar. After that long hiatus, Scaggs no longer seemed to be chasing anybody else’s sound; the album is packed solid with mellow R&B, with a tinge of jazz. And guess what – they have a lot more emotional heft than the stuff he did 20 years earlier.
Despite its neatly loping tempo, “Sierra” is a heart-wrenching song. The central metaphor is simple: a spurned lover retreating to the mountains to nurse his broken heart. But he’s not the same guy anymore, and all the imagery of icy air and big sky and watchful hawks sends home a truth: Once scarred by love, we humans tend to shut down our feelings. Scaggs’s tight, wary voice has a melancholy edge that just kills me. The rhythms are fluid as a mountain stream, and the melody circles like a hawk, dipping and swooping within a few notes, while chords morph like wind currents around it.
It begins with a brief impassioned protest – “What about the one who said he loved you / What about the one who said he cared” – but then the lyrics pivot into toughness: “Don't bother trying to find him / Way up in the icy air.” Do we buy this? I don’t; the guy still hurts, but he’s working on it. In the bridge, he loftily declares, “The angels lay their clouds across his sky / They line up for him every night / Some have wings and others sing / The rest do lazy ballets in the air.” That’s a classic I-don’t-need-you-anymore line, isn’t it? Its poetry fools us for a minute – sure, I don’t need you, I’ve got ANGELS to talk to! – but it sounds suspiciously to me like the ravings of a delusional recluse.
“There he's got a bird to give him warning,” Boz declares next, “And he's got a lookout too / The beauty of the High Sierra / And she's looking out for you.” That’s a load of defense – you can’t convince me he no longer cares about this woman. No, this is a deft, dense killer of a post-break-up song, and Scaggs’s light-as-a-feather vocal touch wisely lets the song sell itself.
So I broke down and finally bought a Boz Scaggs album. Like the title song of that album says, "Some change, some don't." Boz changed, and I'm glad he did.