An In-depth Look at Nina Simone's 'Pastel Blues'

SImone made the blues hyper-modern, even futuristic.

Jul 21 2014, 2:31pm

Pastel Blues starts with almost complete abstraction. Four tiny, distant taps then a massive clap and cymbal that lurch in off-beat in a way that can still surprise you no matter how many times you've heard the album. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It could almost be all electronic, so indeterminate in their origin yet exact in their placing are the sounds. Then in comes Nina Simone's voice—also stuck in a loop, repeating “Be my husband and I'll be your wife,” and also so mannered that it feels slightly inhuman. It's not processed or reverbed like the percussion sounds, just made alien by her extraordinary control: each note bends, twists or cracks into a slight whoop, but always in a way that you can instantly tell is extraordinarily deliberate. Each note is a sculpture, both monumental and minutely precise, and every singer who's tried to go somewhere new with their voice, from Diamanda Galas to Thom Yorke, Jarboe to John Lydon, owes it big time.

This is, as the title suggests, essentially a blues album. But it is the blues as high science: in an era when the Stones and all who followed had codified it into pop music, romanticizing (or fetishizing) its poor, rural roots with a kind of musical raggedness, Simone made it hyper-modern, even futuristic. This is the blues as both urban and urbane, delivered with full knowledge of and passion for its history, and with all the guts and power that white rockers could ever muster, but with all the finesse, sophistication and abstraction that her Juilliard classical training could bring to bear on it. She was able to channel the raw experimentalism of John Lee Hooker or Bessie Smith, but with the full understanding that this music was not some noble-savage instinctive outpouring, but music with its own detailed rule sets which she was able to mesh with those of jazz and classical, with the blues standing as their equal.

The subject matter, then, is that of the blues through and through. It's failure ("Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"), it's forlorn hope ("Trouble in Mind") and it's yearning (every single song on the album vibrates with unmet need). But this isn't a gloomy record—it's shot through with wit, catharsis and even fun ("Trouble..." is as jaunty a party tune as anything in Simone's catalogue). And there's something more than personal trouble being expressed in the standard blues lyrical tropes, too. This is Nina Simone, hardcore civil rights activist, speaking—the woman who a year earlier had written the blisteringly furious "Mississippi Goddam" in response to deep south racist murders—and you don't need her raging version of "Strange Fruit" ("Black bodies hanging from southern trees”) here to get the sense that this is the blues as collective suffering, hopes and fears, not those of an individual.

Throughout, everything is as stripped as that freakishly bare intro. Simone's piano and voice, a brush-stroked jazz drumkit, maybe a lick of harmonica here and there—all close-mic'ed to show the terrifying precision and intense feeling of the playing. This closeness is not exactly intimacy; Simone is not interested in YOU, after all. But it brings you right up close with the power, rage, feeling and technique of her playing. So by the time you do get to that rendition of "Strange Fruit" (better than Billie Holliday's by a country mile, for my money, because it is furious rather than desolate), its power is brutal. And when the closing traditional spiritual "Sinnerman" follows, it doesn't exactly let you off the hook, but at least leaves you with a way forward from that brutality: a rhythmic shakedown still beloved of DJs, once remixed by Masters at Work, it provides not redemption but focus for the rage. It is a voodoo-gospel groove that pulls all the yearning of the album together and turns it into movement, sex and funk. This album is one of the most talented musicians of the 20th century at the height of her powers, and using those powers to ask hard questions and tell hard truths. It is very addictive, but like most addictions can be deeply troubling.

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