Leon Russell died this week, yet another addition to the long, sad list of musical legends who’ve moved on this year (not to mention the potential end of the world as we know it, but I won’t get into that right now). I can’t say that I’m super familiar with his oeuvre, but one song of his has been a longtime favourite of mine.
I first heard this version by the Carpenters. The cheese is laid on pretty thick (there’s even a sax solo), but the beauty of the song cuts through, both in Karen Carpenter’s inimitable voice and the strength of the song itself.
I saw by looking on the record that Leon Russell had written it, but I wasn’t too aware of his career. Later, my friend Matt Collins made me a mix CD that had his original version on it. I always felt that his vocal affectations were a bit over the top, but it is his song, so he can sing it however he wants, and if you don’t like it… that’s what covers are for.
My favourite version is by Willie Nelson, a version I discovered some years later on a country mix from Montreal’s DJ Luv.
Why do I love this song so much? I’m not sure. In the Carpenters version, I always loved the sentiment in the closing line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone and I was singing a song for you.” But in the Willie Nelson version, the part that always hits me is when he sings “…if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding.” In the Carpenters version that line is delivered with a very schmaltzy flourish, but Willie brings to it his famously subtle and understated phrasing, and it really drives home the beauty as well as the melancholy of the sentiment expressed in the song. When he adds a simple melody to the word “melody” itself, it’s slightly corny, but somehow perfect…
Because it’s a song about songwriting (normally a bad idea) and the inability to capture a feeling perfectly with lyrics (“if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding”), it strikes a chord with me as a songwriter, aside from how I might feel as a listener. And ironically (or appropriately?), this expression of being unable to capture the feeling is, in itself, the perfect expression of the feeling. If that makes any sense.
RIP to Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, and the American Dream…
Note: some of these thoughts are taken from a response I sent to Carl Wilson for his Crying Over Art project. I’m not sure if my words were ever used for that, so I thought it was probably OK to repurpose them here.