STRAIT TO THE POINT: HANK WILLIAMS – Lovesick Blues (1949)

Review by: Michael Strait

(Quick intro disclaimer: if you’re listening to 40 Greatest Hits on Spotify, what you’re hearing in place of Lovesick Blues is, for some reason, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson. Which is also an incredible song, but it’s not Lovesick Blues, so go swap it out in your playlist for the real thing.

Anyway.)

I’ve got a process for reviewing great songs. I sit at my computer, listen, and splurge out an unfiltered stream-of-consciousness paragraph containing my reactions to the song as it goes. I then take this raw material, mine it, and refine it into the reviews y’all know and ignore, arranging all the more insightful things that sprang forth from my subconscious into a coherent paragraph or two.

I tried that here, but halfway through I had to stop. I just couldn’t type fast enough; there is so much here that I just couldn’t possibly get it all down in one listen. I ended up having to do three separate listens in order to get all my thoughts down, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed it. This song is astonishing.

It’s almost indescribable, actually, but I’ll try as best I can. I gotta start with his voice, ‘cos it’s this song that made me realise that Hank Williams is one of the greatest singers that has ever lived. The guy’s yodel is so perfectly refined and so utterly seamless that it doesn’t sound like he’s yodelling so much as just breathing out his creased, holey soul, helplessly exhaling the very fabric of his being and baring it all before you. He’s so consistently loud and piercing on this track that one could conceivably describe him as having no indoor voice, but at no point does he ever come off as even slightly obnoxious. Naw, this guy is in total, perfect control of his limitations, and he knows exactly how to apply himself. This is a cover, but he sounds so totally, utterly sincere that it’s hard to imagine he didn’t find something to relate to in the lyrics. Man, trust Hank to take a song written as a lightweight showtune and turn it into a soul-splitting heartbreak ballad!

Of course, his singing talent goes beyond the yodeling. He’s also an absolute master at the all-important, oft-overlooked art of phrasing, and it’s his unique phrasings that push so many of these lyrics into the realms of genuinely affecting profundity. The way he strategically dips into falsetto at the beginning of the word “c-hryyy“, drawing out the second syllable (‘cos it has two syllables when he sings it, of course) into this drifting, fading peal of misery; the way he warbles on “lonesome”, the way he accents “me” in the second verse, the way he just ever-so-briefly dips after the “s” in “seems” before stretching out the rest of the word into this rising wail of despair… man, it’s just incredible. Other singer/songwriters could paint worlds with their words; Hank could paint worlds with a word.

And by God almighty, but the melody he’s singing here! The way it just rises into the distance at the end of each line, and the way it turns into something so beautifully, regretfully wistful in the third line, and the way it resolves in the final part of the verse before seamlessly stretching into the chorus; the words “That last long day she said goodbye”, and the way the tune rises towards “daaay” and then Hank expertly draws it out into this desperate, lingering peak, only for it to helplessly, inevitably drop in disappointment on “she said” and then fall further down for “good” before it it forlornly, mockingly rises again on “byyyye”, with Hank drawing it out like a train disappearing into the distance… fuck. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you get the second verse (or is it a refrain, or some sort of weird post-chorus? I dunno, man – the song is structured so gloriously weirdly!), which key-shifts and then dips in a way that conjures more emotional devastation than every other heartbreak ballad ever written put together. If there’s ever been a popular song with better melodies than this one, I’ve not found it. This song is melodic nirvana.

With all these vast oceans of raw, unfiltered musical beauty and perfection erupting from Hank himself, it’s easy to forget the arrangements here, and they’re quiet enough that I’m willing to believe that was the intent. Thing is, though, there’s actually quite a lot going on, and the fact that it’s all so quiet only makes it more rewarding. Keep your ears open just after that forlorn electric guitar intro, for example, and you’ll hear the tiniest little mouse of a Spanish-style acoustic guitar plucking away around the edges, just adding a hint of a texture that makes it all feel so much more fulsome. There are also some deft little electric guitar chimes casting a touch of warm light from behind Hank’s vocals in the chorus, and the occasional distant fiddles fleshing the whole thing out. And then, of course, there are those gorgeous little slide guitars that bloom up in the chorus every time there’s a break in Hank’s singing, which, like the best flower arrangements, take up but a fraction of all available space and yet add such a tremendous injection of beauty that their value cannot really be calculated. It’s like the instruments are whispering words of comfort in Hank’s ear as he cries, but it’s no use; he’s desperate, tired, and overwhelmingly, utterly lonesome. No amount of music will salve these blues.

Is this the greatest song of all time? I dunno, man, but it’s way up there. I’ve listened to this song more times than I can count while writing this review, and it hasn’t lost a fraction of its power. I could listen to this forever. Two minutes and forty-three seconds of everything popular music could ever aspire to be; art of the highest order. For this record alone, Hank Williams deserves all the acclaim and hyperbole he has ever received.

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