36. Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow) – Lisa Gerrard
There’s a moment in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, about three minutes in, when Merry Clayton, in duet with Jagger, gives herself over to her performance so completely that Jagger is spontaneously moved to acknowledge what he’s hearing. Her voice threatens to break open, cracks on the line “murder yeah”, and he lets out a gleeful, slightly awed “woo” in response; completely natural, unforced and without artifice. Clayton had been called up in the middle of the night to see if she would come down to the studio to record a vocal. She hadn’t heard of the Stones but, encouraged by her husband, she duly turned up, hair still in curlers, and talked through the lyrics before delivering her peerless performance in two or three takes. She was pregnant at the time and sang sitting on a stool. Tragically she miscarried later that night, possibly a result of the stress and strain in the performance.
Even stripped of the surrounding context it’s an astonishing recorded moment, you don’t need Clayton’s back story to recognise the brilliance and intensity of her performance. Knowing it makes the song even more chilling. It’s telling that trying to replicate Jagger’s response comes across as a little flat on the page: “woo”. That is broadly, phonetically, the sound he makes but it’s nigh on impossible to impart the complex range of feeling, from encouragement to admiration to delight to astonishment, that he lets slip in one sound without actually hearing it. Similarly noting that Clayton’s delivery “cracked” in the verse scarcely does justice to the ragged, impassioned, desperate pleading in her voice unless you hear the tones and textures as well as listen to or read the words. You can hear the song here (link) introduced by Clayton’s vocal separated out as an individual track: it is magnificent, terrifying, and simultaneously one of the most inspirational and heart breaking things I’ve ever heard.
Music can tap emotion directly. I think, when you strip away everything else I’ve written in the 42 so far, that’s what it fundamentally does for me. In hearing the direct expression of feelings in a performance I can experience more fully my own. It might be too simplistic to say, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, that I particularly listen to sad songs because I feel sad but there’s some truth in that. I do genuinely think there’s solace there too, I think that in experiencing that sadness it makes me feel better – this isn’t just a form of emotional masochism. Or at least I don’t think it is.
There’s a host of singers who express aspects of the human condition through sound – rather than just through their lyrics – for me. It’s why I’m generally not particularly fussed by overly technical singers; someone hitting a note beyond the seventh octave leaves me cold if it’s done just for the sake of showboating and doesn’t serve the song. There has to be, as Bruce Lee might put it, emotional content: don’t miss all that heavenly glory and all that. So I hear it as plainly in Jeff Buckley’s pitch perfect cry at the end of “Grace” just as I hear it in Kurt Cobain’s somewhat more ragged screams throughout Nirvana’s songs. It’s there in Future Island’s Sam Herring’s last-chance-saloon performance on Letterman – grunts and growls and vocal tics – and it’s there in Sinead O’Connor’s take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (it’s there with or without the tear rolling down her cheek in the video). Dusty Springfield had it in spades (listen to the majestic Goffin / King song “Goin’ Back”) and so did Amy Winehouse – away from all the attendant bullshit that surrounded her life just listen to “Back To Black” and it is an extraordinary record.
At the extreme end of that spectrum of singers that really connect with their song is Lisa Gerrard. Former singer with Dead Can Dance, and latterly probably most famous as the vocalist on much of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack, Gerrard often sings in her own fabricated language. There is no room for words to either help or hinder the delivery of her message: if they mean anything at all then only she knows. As a listener you’re free to purely experience the sound of her voice and allow it to provoke or evoke.
I have very little idea as to what “Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow)” is officially about. By officially I mean what the artist may have said it’s about. There’s relatively little about it to be found online beyond some odd speculation (“is it sung in Algerian ?” – no it isn’t) and Gerrard only gives away that it was written at a time when she was missing her children who were in a different country. For me there’s certainly a deep sense of melancholy in the song, a bottomless, beautiful sadness conjured in her haunting vocal. On some level I had always taken death as one of the themes of the song, it always feels like there’s a sense of mourning in her voice here – a keening quality that conveys both the release and sorrow in that final parting. On that read I guess the “shadow” could be referenced almost directly as some sort of spectral, ghostly presence watching over those left behind – whereas if it’s a more straightforward lament to missing her children then the shadow is just a reminder that she’s always with them even when far away. It’s possible that my read has been influenced by the song’s appearance in West Wing episode “7A WF 83429” – although explicitly used to reference the mobilisation of troops to recover President Bartlet’s daughter the prospect of death hangs pretty heavily over the entire scene.
Almost irrespective of the specifics the song is quite simply utterly mesmerising, almost transcendentally beautiful. I tinker with writing and I can find my way around a guitar so, often, I can at the very least begin to understand the mechanics of a song. Whilst I couldn’t create any of the songs in this series of posts in most cases I have some comprehension for how they work, how they’re built. “Sanvean” exists way beyond my comprehension and I can understand why some people have been moved to write (in various places on the web) that they detect something spiritual here, the presence of God. That’s not to say that I entirely agree – the song hasn’t caused an epiphanous turnaround in my atheism – but it gives me pause. There is something spiritual here and something deeply, profoundly moving.
When my daughter is older and wants to talk about what I believe constitutes a human soul I think I will play her this by way of a start.