An In-depth Look at Nina Simone's 'Pastel Blues'
SImone made the blues hyper-modern, even futuristic.
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.