Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Self-Isolation Disc: ‘Love Songs’ by Billie Holiday

by Michael Corcoran, AAS

I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” dozens of times, but I didn’t know what the song was really about until I heard Billie Holiday’s version. When Sinatra performed the Gershwin number it was with the gusty bravado of a man who’ll take his memories to go. In Holiday’s voice, however, you can hear an almost obsessive regard for the details of the loss she knows she’ll never get over. Even as she puts on a slinky, playful front, Lady Day sounds like she’ll melt into tears at any moment.

Somehow, hearing that track, indeed listening to Holiday’s entire Love Songs collection of double-sided romantic standards, makes recalling my own heartbroken moments a strange pleasure. Hank Williams also does that to me. It’s like that scene in Apocalypse Now where Brando’s Col. Kurtz is explaining the lopped heads and hanging bodies all around his compound as a way to deal with the horrors of war. Depression calls for wallow music and when Billie sings “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” you just fall right in that feeling of loving someone more than they do you. “You Go To My Head,” meanwhile, recalls the intoxication of infatuation, which almost always drifts into either comfort or revulsion over time. This 1996 reissue of songs recorded during Billie’s peak years in the ’30s and early ’40s, is a tribute to those who have loved and lost.

You can get your heart broken only once; after that you’re just reopening the wound. Your guard comes up and you vow to never go through that again- the zombie walks, the doubled-over despair, the deep, deep hole that has inspired a million country drinking songs. You start flinching when somebody gets too close.

But then you fall in love again. And again. And again.

If you’re lucky, you have something to show for those adventures of the heart – a kid, a tattoo, a head full of memories and, who knows?, even a partner for life. You also have an album that can take you back to sad, broken-down places, and then, with the glory of its artistry, show you that all that’s left is everything.

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