BILL WITHERS: JUST AS I AM (1971)
1) Harlem; 2) Ain't No Sunshine; 3) Grandma's Hands; 4) Sweet Wanomi; 5) Everybody's Talkin'; 6) Do It Good; 7) Hope She'll Be Happier; 8) Let It Be; 9) I'm Her Daddy; 10) In My Heart; 11) Moanin' And Groanin'; 12) Better Off Dead.
There has certainly been many a strange album recorded in 1970-71, as idealistic psychedelia began losing ground to musical psychotherapy, but the official debut of Bill Withers definitely deserves a special place of its own. He was certainly not the first performer to combine aspects of the post-Dylan «singer-songwriter» approach with the foundations of soul and R&B, but he may have been the first black artist to try it out on such a consistent basis — generating a sound and a feel that you cannot get from any other artist, black or white, circa 1971. The title of the album itself seems almost ironic in that light: Just As I Am? It actually takes quite a while to figure out just as what exactly the man is, and even then, it's hard to be sure.
Unlike typical R&B performers, Bill Withers materialized out of nowhere — rather than being spotted in some local church or club and put through a period of grooming, he just sent in some demo tapes to L.A.-based Sussex Records; the label owner Clarence Avant liked what he heard, signed Withers to a contract, and assigned no less than Booker T. Jones himself to produce the man's first album. (Yes, boys and girls, it used to be that easy, provided you had real talent to burn and a proper place to turn it up). More than that — on his debut album, Withers is accompanied by Jim Keltner on drums, Chris Ethridge (of the Flying Burrito Brothers) on bass, and Stephen Stills on electric guitar. Any other debutant could have pissed his pants from utter happiness right there in the studio — but one single listen to Just As I Am will suffice to understand that Bill Withers is as far from a potential pants-pisser as can be.
Most encyclopaedias and online review sites tag Just As I Am as a «soul» or «R&B» album, just because it had some members of Booker T. & The MGs playing on it, and was sung by a black performer, and we all know black people used to sing «soul» or «R&B» before they all turned to rap and other crap. In reality, this is ridiculous: Just As I Am is a dark, seriously disturbing and disturbed singer-songwriter album that mixes some elements of traditional soul and R&B (and blues, and jazz) with the «whitebread» folk-rock scene of the time — in fact, it is more James Taylor than Al Green, I'd say, but way, way bleaker than both. In fact, if we were to believe that the album title tells the truth, we probably wouldn't want to mess around with the guy. The album ends with the sound of a gunshot, for Christ's sake!
Most of the time, however, the album simply resonates with tension, never coming to the brink of a genuine explosion. ʽHarlemʼ initiates us into the world of Bill Withers with a swinging, danceable rhythm, and lines like "Saturday night in Harlem / Ev'rything's alright / You can really swang and shake your pretty thang / The parties are out of sight" would suggest that we are invited to have fun — but the dark bass groove and almost threatening strings, gradually rising up and gaining in shrillness, insist that the party is rigged, and then there's the counterpoint: "It's too hot to sleep / And I'm too broke to eat / I don't care if I die or not". Immediately, it is made clear that we are not to be entertained — that the performer's vision of Harlem and everything that goes with it is certainly not encumbered by rose-colored glasses.
From there on, song after song deals with the little horrors of life — loneliness (ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ), nostalgia for dead relatives (ʽGrandma's Handsʼ), losing your loved one to another (ʽHope She'll Be Happierʼ), and losing a battle with alcohol (ʽBetter Off Deadʼ — the idea of shooting oneself in a bout of alcoholism would later be explored by Alice Cooper on ʽPass The Gun Aroundʼ to a more dramatic, but less subtle and suggestive effect). Every now and then the atmosphere is a bit alleviated with the joys of a healthy sex life (ʽSweet Wanomiʼ, ʽMoanin' And Groanin'ʼ), but when romance is rather seen as temporary salvation from a life full of misery and self-inflicted stupidity, maybe «healthy» is not quite the right word to use.
Creepiest of the lot is ʽI'm Her Daddyʼ, a gloomy, threatening blues-rock number whose lyrics may look innocent on paper — a father demanding to see his six-year old daughter of whose existence he was only recently informed — but sound nearly psychopathic on record, even though Bill himself resorts to screaming only occasionally, preferring to impersonate the neurotic father as quietly as possible, to convey an even more disturbing image. Not grief, not remorse, and obviously not happiness — this is a «give-me-back-my-daughter-you-bitch-or-face-the-consequences» type of rant, stunningly realistic and just a tad shivery.
On the other hand, as long as the protagonist is not high and does not present an immediate threat to society, he is prone to acute fits of murderous loneliness — ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ, which became Bill's first major hit and went on to be covered by lots of people, tells it like it means it, in a brief series of four-line verses, each line pinching sharp and painful. One of the verses did not work out at first and was temporarily filled by Bill with a series of "I know, I know, I know..." that he was later convinced to keep — this must be a technical record of sorts (how many "I know"s can one fit within one breath?), but it also works very well emotionally within the song. For that matter, Bill is a fantastic singer — check out the way he drawls out "she's gone" on ʽHope She'll Be Happierʼ without a single wrong fluctuation in the airwave.
Strangely, the only relative «misfires» on this weird, haunting album are two cover versions, neither of which is particularly bad, yet they just do not seem to fit. Well, ʽEverybody's Talkin'ʼ could fit thematically, but in the process of reinventing it, Bill somehow flushes out the sad-and-tired mood of the original; and the gospel-style, clap-your-hands-together rewrite of ʽLet It Beʼ can only be qualified as sheer filler. There ain't no talk about finding inner peace, like the song suggests, on this album — ʽLet It Beʼ and ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ are mutually exclusive, not to mention ʽBetter Off Deadʼ which is sort of an anti-ʽLet It Beʼ if there ever was one. It's almost as if they told him, "hey, we won't release the record unless there's a McCartney number on it", and he went, "oh yeah? I'll show you McCartney!" — and recorded this quasi-parodic deconstruction that replaces solemnity with stupid forced cheerfulness.
Everything else rules, and is as far removed from «formulaic» soul records of the period as possible; if anything, Just As I Am belongs on the same shelf as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Joni Mitchell's Blue and all those other singer-songwriters' confessionals, even if the lyrics are relatively straightforward in comparison — but when it comes to psychological layers, there is comparable depth in here, sadly, not often mentioned in reviews of the album, which prefer dwelling on formal aspects (such as the subtle textures of Stephen Stills' electric guitar, which are important to the album's sound — in fact, I could easily see some of these songs covered by Stills on an auspicious day — but are hardly at the very heart of it). Major thumbs up.
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