Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Standing in the Shadows of Love” / The Four Tops


Even if you’re happy in love, listening to this Holland-Dozier-Holland anthem to a love gone wrong could pitch you right into doubt and despair. It’s been covered by everybody, but the definitive version is, and always will be, the Four Tops’ 1966 original, with Levi Stubbs pouring out his soul on lead vocals and maestro James Jamerson administering a good spanking on bass guitar.

Along the time continuum of a love affair, this song sets its quivering needle on a very specific moment – after the first few setbacks, and just before the real shit hits the fan. He’s poised right on the brink, trembling apprehensively--it would be easier if he were blissfully unaware, but no, he knows what’s coming. The way that melody plods manfully up the minor scale, doggedly on the beat, you can guess he’s been through this sort of grief before; he’s sick at heart already.

“Standing in the shadows of love / I‘m getting ready for the heartaches to come” – there’s the where, who, and what of the story laid out; all we need to figure out now is the why. As the chorus proceeds, Levi struggles against the inevitable, erupting in spontaneous phrases like “Can’t you see me?” and “Now wait a minute!” In the verse, he trips wildly all over the beat, desperately testifying: “I wanna run / But there’s no place to go / For heartaches will find me, I know. / Without your love, a love I need / It’s the beginning of the end of me.” Levi’s heaves of emotion on “be-gin-ning of the end” are just priceless.

Thanks to superb Motown production, this song sounds like a traffic jam of warring noises--the commiserating oohs of the back-up vocals, the inexorable tick-tock of drums, the warning hiss of tambourine and shakers, the jittery scramble of electric guitars. (I'm surprised to discover that there are no horns in here.) There's nothing clean or crisp about it at all -- since when was love crisp or clean?

Forever and always, though, the best thing about this song – and one of the great moments ever in soul music – is this bridge: “Didn’t I always treat you right, now baby didn’t I? / Didn’t I do the best I could now didn’t I?” The rest of the instruments suddenly drop off, leaving just those wild congas going at it like a vein throbbing in his temple. It’s the same melodic line as the chorus, but jiggered up with frantic syncopation, like a Morse code of anxiety. Confusion, anger, and accusation swim together; he’s wagging a warning finger, and wringing his hands all at the same time. He repeats this three times in the song, each time with slightly different words, but the effect is always the same: a long slow boil of righteous indignation.

Sure, other times in the song he wails about being left alone “with misery my only company” and “I’ve got nothing but sorrow” and “I’m trying not to cry out loud” – but the mood of this song is not self-pity. If he’s standing in the shadows, he’s not moping there – he’s lurking, fists clenched, getting ready to make his move. At the beginning of the song, I feel like they still have a shot at making things up, but by the end? Not a chance in hell.

Standing in the Shadows of Love sample


wwolfe said...

"...those wild congas going at it like a vein throbbing in his temple." That's perfect. Thanks for that. A friend of a friend told me she thought "Bernadette" was actually "Burned to Death." That's funny, but when you think about it, pretty much on target, emotionally.

Holly A Hughes said...

"Burned to Death" -- I love it!