Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sophisticated Misery: Englebert Humperdinck: "A Man Without Love"

It is easy to see that on the same block as Marriott and his bothersome neighbors, the Housewives of Valium Court have their own method of escape; not just through doctor-approved medication but through daydreams. There he is, unable to leave the house as he is crying (and real men don't cry in public) over his lost love. It was, perhaps, a Mediterranean romance - Spain, Italy, somewhere where (the Housewives think) Romance is constantly in the air and a broken heart is seen not as a mere scratch or bruise but as a near-fatal condition that must be treated with respect.

Crying is a funny thing in songs; it's an easy enough thing to sing about, but if you have the wrong voice for it, it renders the emotional outpouring as something more or less as emotionally involving as trimming the hedge or kneading dough*. It requires a big voice to handle those big emotions, and if Englebert here sounds less than believable (compared to say, Roy Orbison) he at least has the appropriate voice for the song and its Italian origins. (The song was originally written by Roberto Livraghi, Daniele Pace & Mario Panzeri as "Quando M'innamoro" for the Sanremo Festival, an Italian song competition that was the inspiration for Eurovision; Barry Mason wrote English lyrics.) Part of the reason this works is simply that so many I'm-going-to-stay-right-here-and-mope songs** were Englebert's territory already, but there is a languorous smoothness here as well, and the Housewives could easily imagine him wearing his silk dressing gown and eating his eggs Benedict and being as elegant as hell, and still suffering.

Loneliness is indeed a cloak he wears, as a more avant-MOR balladeer would sing, and if he can't go outside he is in a way just as imprisoned as his intended audience; what may look like more fromage to some was more than likely reality for many. That it has a slightly too-sweet aura about it - like a kind of glaze - adds to the sealed-for-your-protection feeling of immobility he's felt since she went away, after that Mediterranean romance.

Still, this immobility is cozy in way - there is a reassuring gentleness and suaveness in the music that guarantees that once the narrator (who recognizes himself as one of many lonely men, a member of a tribe if you will) gets over his loss and goes outside, he is bound to meet another woman and Romance will bloom again. For now he cries and can't go outside, though, and while that seems harsh at least his suffering isn't as acute as the one in this song, a song that brings romantic agony's endless and near-morbid condition only too close to home***. (That it didn't get into the Top 40 in the UK could in part be because of its intensity; it could also be because Motown music wasn't as of yet being pushed that much by certain DJs and music folk.) The Housewives of Valium Court are comforted in their way by this shared misery, thinking and feeling the common "He's too beautiful to suffer!" as they pause after housework or during the baby's nap; that maybe in a few years they might think that way about themselves is possible, but at this point marginal. For now they sit and imagine the Mediterranean breezes, exotic romance, meeting a lovelorn man while strolling by the sea...

Next up: a song that lives, like other things, in infamy.

*Witness the completely emotionally non-involving Jason Derulo single "Fight For You" where when he sings about crying he sounds like a robot. The overuse of Toto's "Africa" doesn't help much either.

**As opposed to Tom Jones, who is forever trying to get home and never really managing it.

***Roger Penzabene, the lyricist, wrote the song about his marital troubles; he killed himself on New Year's Eve, 1967. The Summer of Love had many victims, and the heaviness of '67 was beginning to crush many in '68.

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