You have to go back to the early 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Sure, it's not pure and noble love he's talking about -- more like sexual obsessions -- but the sweeping melody, not to mention Percy Sledge's soulful delivery, elevates lust to epic heights.
Thursday, May 08, 2014
“When A Man Loves a Woman” / Percy Sledge
You know you’re in for monumental emotion from the very first notes, with their blaring horns, resonant organ, and ponderous bass. This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)
“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets grandly at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. It’s pretty ballsy, how he claims to have the definitive word on love between a woman and a man, on a universal basis, but he’s sure got my ear.
That commanding opener is evanescent, though; right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The rest of that stuff – the crap that besets this man – is inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.
For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.
But (emotionally speaking -- not musically!) it's all downhill from there. Now that he's opened that door, even though he reverts to the third person, it’s clear he’s dwelling on his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.
Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.