THE CURRENCY OF MAN
Verve (2015 release)
“For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too! And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And He will forgive him for your sake.” –-from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1879)
When Nathanael West came to Hollywood in 1933, he was flush with four thousand dollars paid by the fledgling Twentieth Century Pictures for movie rights to his bitter satirical novel Miss Lonelyhearts. After Twentieth Century butchered the novel into the unrecognizable Advice to the Lovelorn, West retreated to Columbia, where he was hired as a junior writer. Neither of his first two assignments were produced, but the ambitious young author remained unperturbed—he had already discovered where the richest Hollywood stories were hidden, stories not about the divine and decadent movie stars’ lives but rather about the fringe elements unwelcome in and written out of Tinseltown’s mythical glamour, the very same souls Dostoevsky had described in 1879 as destined to “depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows they have lived or not.”
As Otto Friedrich observes in City of Nets (his history of Hollywood in the ‘40s): “(West) told friends of his encounters with gamblers, lesbians, dwarfs. He began writing a short story about three Eskimos who had been brought to Hollywood to star in an adventure movie and had been stranded there after its failure. As the narrator from the studio’s publicity department remarked, ‘It was about Eskimos, and who cares about Eskimos?’
“Hollywood jobs were as transitory as Hollywood itself. During a long siege of unemployment, made worse by sickness, West lived in a shabby apartment hotel off Hollywood Boulevard called the Pa-Va-Sed, tenanted by a raffish assortment of vaudeville comics, stuntmen, and part-time prostitutes. He began frequenting the city’s Mexican underworld, going to cockfights at Pismo Beach. He began imagining all these figures as characters in a novel he planned to call ‘The Cheated.’ He told a friend about a newspaper story, perhaps imaginary, of a yacht named The Wanderer, which had sailed for the South Seas with a strange assortment of passengers, movie cowboys, a huge lesbian, and, once again, a family of Eskimos.
“These were the outcasts that eventually peopled The Day of the Locust. There was no Jean Harlow or Rita Hayworth in West’s Hollywood, only Faye Greener, with her ‘long, swordlike legs,’ whose invitation ‘wasn’t to pleasure but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love.’ … In this Hollywood, there was no Gary Cooper either, only Earl Shoop, the inarticulate cowboy who survived by poaching game in the hills while he vaguely hoped for a job as a movie extra.’
‘Don’t Misunderstand,’ the opening track on Melody Gardot’s Currency of Man (co-written with Jesse Harris)
Some time between the release of her 2012 masterpiece, The Absence (a Deep Roots Album of the Year selection), and the recording of her 2015 monument, Currency of Man, Melody Gardot—born in New Jersey, raised in Philadelphia–wound up living in Los Angeles and reuniting professionally with producer Larry Klein, who steered her 2009 Grammy-nominated album My One and Only Thrill. Not an insignificant fact, this, because one of the many mysteries surrounding Ms. Gardot is where she calls home. After finishing My One and Only Thrill she gave up her Philadelphia apartment and traveled throughout South America and Europe “haphazardly by the seat of my pants, booking a ticket the day before, sometimes changing it,” she has explained. “I was trying to find something about these cultures, the basis of which was I felt that no matter what country you’re in, or what language you’re singing in, you wind up united through the sounds.”
Her extended stays abroad fueled the entire approach to The Absence. As your faithful friend and narrator noted in his Album of the Year review, “Working with Brazilian composer Heitor Pereira and recording in Brazil, Morocco, Hawaii and Portugal, the music of The Absence fuses flamenco, samba and fado styles with the classic pop-jazz that is the artist’s forte (consistent with the multinational aspect of the project, Ms. Gardot sings in three languages on the disc).”
Recording once again in the U.S. (primarily at The Village and Paramount Studios in L.A., with some sessions taking place at Plus XXX Studios in Paris), Ms. Gardot makes a couple of pertinent points from the outset of the eerie, slow boiling opening track, tellingly titled “Don’t Misunderstand.” For one, the world she created in The Absence lives on in Currency of Man’s seductive ambiance, in her husky, come-hither vocals and most especially in what might be termed the “marginalia,” meaning the whispered, mostly indecipherable mumblings mixed deep below her voice, like the overlapping dialogue in a Robert Altman film or in Bernardo Bertolucci’s scintillating The Conformist. Best guess as to its meaning: having fully embraced her wanderlust as a state of being, Ms. Gardot is no longer a static presence on her recordings; she’s moving through her songs much as she moves around the world, and what we hear in the background are the malevolent, sotto voce asides and street cacophony as she materializes in different locales—for example, the swirl of mutterings (only the words “America” and “fire” are recognizable) under her weary, intermittent moans in advance of her vocal entrance more than a minute into the abovementioned “Don’t Misunderstand”; church bells pealing and a gruff male voice asking, “Baby, spare some change?” in the early going of “It Gonna Come.”
From Currency of Man, ‘No Man’s Prize’
The second point our heroine makes here is that she has very much created her own alternate, fully realized universe on record. How could she have emphasized this more emphatically than she does at the start of Currency, which could not sound more like its predecessor’s sequel? Remember “lemanja,” the closing song on The Absence? From a frisky samba it evolves into a quiet gospel-inflected benediction before introducing a celebratory finale stew comprised of voices, percussion, woodwinds and stringed instruments. All this takes but four minutes; yet the song itself clocks in at 18 minutes, 13 seconds, and for 14 minutes, 13 seconds of that time Melody Gardot, as I noted in the Album of the Year review, “vanishes into thin air, as the only sounds heard during this time, beginning at 15:15, are those of ringing bells; voices chattering away indistinctly in what sounds like a restaurant setting with plates and silverware rattling; at 15:35 it all disappears and then is supplanted by a mélange of thumping drums, abrupt alto sax eruptions, Middle Eastern guitar licks, a male voice apparently crying out for help—a sound collage, in other words—which in turn recedes, giving way to those ringing bells again and finally to the sound of a car starting and driving away hastily.” When Ms. Gardot actually sings for the first time on Currency of Man, it has been more than 15 minutes, over the course of two albums, before we knew she was really there.
When she does pop up again, she’s gone Nathanael West on us, with a smidgen of vintage Tom Waits emerging periodically in the soundscape and narrative thrust of her seamy L.A. milieu. In the second verse of “Don’t Misunderstand” (co-written with Jesse Harris, a rare Gardot collaboration and the only one on this album) she observes, “Who we are is what we got/whether fire or flame or not/take me in under your embrace/I will be your kindlin’ place.” Flames and Los Angeles have a distinguished history in fact and in literature. Noting the cataclysms wrought by the Santa Ana wind, Joan Didion, in her acclaimed 1968 collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, opined as to how “the city burning is Los Angeles’ deepest image of itself. … At the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse…”
From Currency of Man, ‘Bad News’
Twenty-nine years pre-Didion, Nathanael West had Tod Hackett, The Day of the Locust’s central protagonist, engaged in an epic painting he was titling “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Wrote West: “He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and thereby appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust. He wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”
In Currency of Man it’s not the natural forces of hot winds and a restless transform fault causing “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” Instead, it’s us–a society losing its compassion, discarding any semblance of civility, devaluing personal integrity, becoming desensitized to true intimacy, replacing real communication with 140-word blurbs (descriptions sans context, “facts” sans proof, self-aggrandizement without merit). The Melody Gardot we’ve known to this point has been one of the most enticing practitioners of old-school romanticism. My apologies, but I must repeat my take on her singular allure as posited in the 2013 Album of the Year review (headlined “Deitrich. Deneuve. Garbo. Gardot.”). To wit:
Melody Gardot has succeeded in insuring we know less and less about her even as we seem to know more, or think we know more. On the one hand, she seems like every other woman who’s been scorned in love but resolves to love again until it’s right; on the other, she seems as complex as the icons with whom she shares the headline above—outwardly glamorous, someone who incites strong feelings in her audience but who is always at a distance from us. Otherworldly and worldly; always dressed to the nines in an era when the female superstars of pop are wearing bikini underwear or less onstage, or posting self-shot nude photos of themselves online; possessed of sexual allure that draws men and women alike to her, although she has never been linked to any romantic partner and will admit only to always sleeping with…a guitar (“It doesn’t matter who’s in the bed with me, by the way–the guitar is always there,” she told The Telegraph’s Craig McLean in the most revealing of the few interviews she’s granted, published in The Telegraph of May 29, 2012).
Like Dietrich, like Deneuve, like Garbo, Ms. Gardot trades on mystery and control wrapped in the classiest of exteriors. ….
A live version of ‘If Ever I Recall Your Face,’ dated January 6, 2015. The studio version is one of the revealing ballads on Currency of Man.
From Currency of Man, ‘Once I Was Loved’
That this Melody Gardot still exists is evident in two lovely but poignant ballads here: in “If Ever I Recall Your Face,” with her trembling voice cushioned by piano, a funereal cello rumble and Nelson Riddle-like strings arranged and conducted by Clément Ducol, she seems to be, for three verses anyway, grateful for the good things retained in a dashed affair’s aftermath; that is, until the final verse, when, singing with delicacy and raw vulnerability comparable to that of Billie Holiday, she subtly pulls the rug out from under her own memories: “In the oceans of your eyes/lies a look I recognize/a glance that leaves me dancing polonaise/whenever I recall your/if ever I recall your face.” The slight pause she makes after the penultimate “your” is dramatic and devastating, an unforeseeable kissoff. Significantly, because it feels like a coda to “If Ever I Recall Your Face,” both in arrangement (solemn piano, moody strings) and in feel (the deliberate vocal with understated dynamics), comes “Once I Was Loved.” Timed at 4:50, it seems much shorter, perhaps owing to its unwavering acceptance of that which persists—the memory of being loved, truly loved. “What have we come to when we reach our final days/If we can surrender, then that is enough just to remember/that once, once we were loved/once we were beautiful, once we were loved.” A timeless sentiment, this, one of the most beautiful and piercing lyrics anyone has crafted in recent memory.
From Currency of Man, ‘Same to You’
Her L.A. experience (and other travels, but most certainly Los Angeles in this case) has produced a Melody Gardot changed from any iteration we’ve encountered on her other albums, including The Absence. She explains it unflinchingly in her liner notes, which in toto constitute a powerful essay on the state of the Union. The telling paragraph: “Why have we forgotten what it means to help others? Why have we forgotten to be kind? Why has the world become more about our own personal successes and less about the lives around us? Where has our community gone? Where is the bulk of our compassion? Is writing a charity check once at Christmas enough to define you as a generous person when you walk past a homeless man every day and never so much as pay him a smile? Why are we so much better than someone else because of our jobs, our slaving daily routine? Why do we define ourselves by our material possessions like our cars, our houses, our establishments? And when did it become standard practice to place a value on a human based on elements that eventually disappear anyway? … we see not the soul in the space of seeking to appear so much more than we are.” (Ellipses are Ms. Gardot’s.)
As did Nathanael West, Ms. Gardot turns her attention to social outcasts, characters that “depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not.” They’re not Nathanael West’s “holiday crowd” setting the city on fire; they’re the ones being consumed by fires–fires ignited by neglect, heartbreak, lack of simple human kindness, deficits of love. Although the shrieking, frightful sax of “Bad News” underscores the unstated evil afoot of which the singer warns (“the bad news has arrived/it’s closing time”), for the most part Ms. Gardot brings near-palpable empathy to these tales—far from rendering judgments, she’s engaged in an attempt to understand her characters’ dire circumstances. (That chilling sax part comes right out of Waits’s “Small Change,” and “closing time” is the title of Tom’s debut album—if this is an homage, it’s right on the money, as both artists have great affinity for the witching hour and denizens of darkness.)
These are moments: sirens, distant Philly Soul horns and a male wolf’s whistle as a prelude to the heartbreaking “She Don’t Know”; church bells pealing and a gruff male voice asking, “Baby, spare some change” at the outset of “It Gonna Come”; “Palmas Da Rua,” nothing but street sounds, syncopated hand clapping and, if you listen hard, the Gardot hum, barely audible in what is a 50-second interlude setting up the album’s most in-your-face communiqué, one bearing the confrontational title of “Same To You” and remaining true to its intent by being a funky, percolating groover with a gospel flair (Maxine and Julia Waters constitute one half of the album’s formidable group of background vocalists) and a caustic lead vocal scorching someone for romantic misdeeds destined to be repaid in kind (“You had somebody who loved you/what did you do/you had somebody who loved you/what d’ya put them through now honey/you left somebody who loved you/now they gonna do the same to you/Lord, they gonna do the same to you…”); the soft breathing and room noise preceding the soothing, even tender at times, reality-check monologue-in-song delivered by a prostitute to her starry-eyed john over a somber piano and a fleeting minimalist wash of sinister strings, reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown score.
In “Don’t Talk” she tries to impress upon a suitor in a city of artifice the need to be real: “Don’t care about what you do/Don’t care about what you think/Don’t care about who you knew.” In the aforementioned “No Man’s Prize” a lady of the night offers straight but compassionate talk to a john getting too emotionally attached: “Jack, take it easy/Who you’re trying to fool?/…but see Jack, nobody’s perfect, but we’re perfectly aligned/You done had a woman/And I done had the time/but see Jack/if there’s one thing/you oughta open your eyes and see that I ain’t no man’s prize.” In the percolating soul groove of “She Don’t Know” she laments the inevitable path of a naïve girl on her own in the big city, “high heels clingin’ on a pavement streets a glow/hips are swaggerin’ and achin’ to and fro/she don’t need no education,” strutting right into the trap of a pimp who “done seen a revelation in her jeans.”
From Currency of Man, ‘Preacherman,’ inspired by Emmett Till’s murder
One moment takes place far outside of L.A.—way outside, as in the Mississippi Delta. “Preacherman” is the album’s most discussed song, and its angriest. Once a choir’s soothing opening “aahhs” have subsided the track stomps and roars with jittery percussion and angry electric guitar flourishes that glow white-hot over time. The song is inspired by the horrific murder by torture and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Rather than being specifically about young Till or the gut wrenching circumstances surrounding his demise, though, it focuses instead on a larger lesson: that violence as the handmaiden of intolerance and bigotry has no moral standing. She’s not really saying anything we don’t know, but her measured, calm tone registers the depth of her feelings as the gospel background singers softly cry “Think about it!” ahead of an indelible message: “I have seen the darkness/lord knows I’ve seen the light/don’t recall the lord/sayin’ there’s a difference/if you’re black or white/‘cause I believe in a world/where we all belong/and I’m so tired of seein’/every good man gone.”
“Preacherman” begs the question as to whether this album’s sudden outpouring of social conscience will henceforth inform her art, or whether the coy Melody Gardot of My One and Only Thrill will resurface as her nomad ways take to her other parts of the globe. All we know for sure is that she has become a fully formed artist with a singular sense of style and a vision of her art’s purpose. The Absence and Currency of Man comprise the foundations of a singular musical world replete with its own language, point of view and sound (hers, her musicians and those spooky, Greek chorus-like voices heard dimly through the sound collages).
From Currency of Man, ‘Burying My Troubles’
A truly beautiful woman, Ms. Gardot’s ever-chic mien disguises one immutable fact of her life: she lives in constant pain as a consequence of near-fatal injuries suffered eleven years ago when a Jeep ploughed into her as she was bicycling on a Philadelphia street, shattering her pelvis, damaging her spine at both ends and inflicting head trauma severe enough to leave her with aphasia. She had to re-learn most basic functions—walking, speaking, brushing her teeth, etc. The stylish cane she’s made iconic helps keep her steady on her feet; the signature dark glasses protect eyes rendered light-sensitive by neural damage. Multiple methods of pain management get her through the day; as she told one interviewer, “In very severe moments, ultrasound, TENS unit, shiatsu, acupressure, acupuncture, myofascial release, craniosacral, osteopathic manipulations–any of these works very well. And I can use them in a balanced way to pull myself back into shape momentarily.” In a very real sense, the protagonists populating Currency of Man live in a world of pain too, and are simply trying to stay in one piece as they navigate through their days. Maybe this, then, is the first time the real Melody Gardot—the public one we see in all the glamour shots and the private one struggling to keep herself whole on a daily basis—has appeared in full on an album, her highs and her lows on unabashed display in revealing lyrics and nuanced singing.
Maybe, just maybe, she tells us everything we need to know at the end of her liner notes, in summarizing the findings of her recent travels in a most personal way.
“No one aims to project themselves into the stratosphere of existence without purpose,” she observes. “No one believes they will fail. But the stunning and harsh reality of our lives is that we can be met with chaos at any moment. What defines us, what makes us who we are and what births our legacy, is how we endure those moments.”
Thus the words of an artist on intimate terms with the reality of “chaos at any moment.”
This is where her L.A. story ends. But if we’ve learned anything from her past two albums, it’s that the close of one is really the beginning of another. The Gardot mystery endures. Hey, it’s Chinatown, Jake.