What was the last song you became obsessed with? Around this time last year I was playing St. Vincent’s ‘Digital Witness’ a lot, and singing it, humming it, or running parts through in my mind even when the headphones weren’t in. I have a history of that: songs that hook into some recess in me and loop endlessly away seemingly without much effort on my part to call them to mind. But they’re also always the songs to which I find myself returning when I launch Rdio or pick up my phone to play something.
I think last January’s semi-obsessive repetition of that St. Vincent track was the last time it happened for me, but right now there’s another song playing over-and-over in my mind, and which I play (usually just once, but sometimes a couple of times through) at least every other day at this point: Irma Thomas’s 1964 single ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’.
The song is a three-minute masterpiece of plaintive longing and understated resolve. The subtle echo on Thomas’s voice is haunting and perfectly pitched to lend a hint of loneliness to her plight, and the instrumentation is similarly restrained: a simple piano refrain that sounds like it’s coming from another room, the drumming little more than tempo kept with a brush, and a bright xylophone scale that glints over the verses like light through breeze-blown trees. The pure magic of the track, for me, is caught in one moment at the end of each of the two choruses, with the choice of how to deliver those bracketed words from the title. Every time I play the song I can hear the usual, easy line for the end of that phrase: it starts earlier than Thomas actually does and goes up on the first syllable of ‘understand’ before levelling off. It’s the line that a thousand soul and alt-soul songs choose, and keeps those two words in their parenthetical place. Instead Thomas dips subtly down on that syllable, and extends it, rising slightly, before touching the final two syllables in a soft staccato. Somehow it shifts the whole weight of the song, making it not solely another love song but also a paean for understanding - as vulnerable as it is beautiful.