“I’m Lonely For You” – Bettye Swann
I’ve been stuck on this one for a while now, since 2007 or 2008, when it popped up late one night on a local college station. I remember scrawling down the more audible lyrics for the sake of a Google search later to nail it down, title, artist, format, anything relevant – this was protocol thanks to the unreliable nature of college radio, where staticky reception and sometimes diffident DJs prone to mumble their playlists or just plain forget are both pretty common; listening in this way became a habit more active than passive, so you’d find yourself trying to capture the song that captured you, waving a net as it fluttered by before it dissolved into the atmosphere. I never seem to stray too far from this first exposure in the few thousand times I’ve listened to “Lonely” since – I’m not necessarily huddled by a speaker but my ears instinctively open up a little more, as if it has more still to offer.
Which isn’t to say the song is overly elaborate in its construction or an epic adventure in headphone use – it’s not Great, just really really great, a terrific tune transubstantiated via the holy spirit of Swann’s voice into a something much more than the sum of its parts. (Or, as Swann did write the song, probably fitted to suit.) It feels like it was executed in one fell swoop or maybe just accumulated by Swann unseen and released whole into the world like a bolt of lightning at the moment of recording, all maximum impact per square inch within a modest frame that doesn’t break three minutes. It charges forward, with verse and chorus as decidedly blurry structural necessities, not as distinct as usual – the chorus only peeks its head above ground halfway through and at the end, never really disrupting the song as a dramatic monologue. I’d be hardpressed to describe it as “catchy”, but it’s tough to shake.
As such, it’s a snake charmer, not quite repetitive or programmatic but certainly all of a piece – no single moment dominates, or rather the dominant moment is whatever one you happen to be listening to. Swann’s voice never slips into an easy groove but works hard for your attention, wholly engaged with each instant – her voice spins a tough and precise thread from one lyric to the next that you (or maybe just I) can find yourself bound tight in ridiculously quick. Thoroughly enmeshed, it’s easy to imagine she’s making the song up as she goes or maybe just giving it shape and space, her voice a slight step ahead of the backing band which dutifully fills it in; foregrounded in the mix, she doesn’t inhabit the environment of sound around her so much as create it.