The Same Love That
Made Me Laugh
"I've gotta take a ton
of lies to get an oun-
ce of truth from you."
-- Bill Withers, "You"
Though Bill Withers released +'Justments at the height of his '70s fame, it didn't meet with the same success as records like Just as I Am, which is ironic as
it captures Bill at his best--earthy vocals, laid-back grooves, Fla-
menco guitar filigrees--just slightly less poptastic than usual.
The more I listen, the more it sounds like a lost classic, rather
than a flawed recording that got lost in the shuffle. If there are
no clear hit singles, his unheralded songwriting is in fine form.
Though his career would continue to wax and wane in the ensuing
decades, culminating with the release earlier this year of acclaim-
ed documentary Still Bill (now available on DVD), +'Justments
suggests some reasons why he dropped out of the music business.
In opener "You," for instance, he takes on hypocrisy, drug use,
and other social ills, aligning him closer to Curtis Mayfield and
Marvin Gaye than listeners of 1974 might have been expecting.
Here's a sampling: "You've got the nerve to call me narrow-
minded, just because I'm not loose and indiscreet," "People
sometimes get blinded by people standing on their own two
feet," and "You're like a man lovin' Jesus who says he can't
stand the Jew." (In "Green Grass," he also castigates "People
taking tranquilizers by the pound"). The message: take care
of your own damn problems, and get off Bill's back, y'all.
But that's just the first song, and as great as it is, it doesn't
represent the rest of the record, which isn't as dark, at least
not until closer "Railroad Man," which recounts a freight-train
fatality...with a surprising degree of sweetness and funk, i.e.
"He was a good-time railroad man" (musically, it comes on like
a Southern-fried cross between "Superfly" and "Troglodyte").
Most of the other tracks, like
the string-laden "Heartbreak
Road" and "Make a Smile for
Me," hark back to classic love
songs like "Ain't No Sunshine,"
i.e. "I believe that love's a good
teacher" and "Chase the clouds
away with your smile." There's
nothing downbeat about those sentiments. (I also dig the way the cascading piano introduction
to "Stories" anticipates, of all things, "I Don't Like Mondays.")
If anything, Bill gets overly-sentimental on "Liza," in which he
begins by stating, "Probably one of the nicest affections in the
world is the affection that's there between a worldly ol' uncle and
a very innocent young niece." Then he croons, "I know what it's
like to need a shoulder, so lay your head on mine." In other words,
it's a family-oriented number in the vein of "Grandma's Hands."
Throughout, his voice is the warm and welcoming instrument
that continues to draw people to his catalog, despite the scarci-
ty of new material. Bill Withers will never go out of style.
Endnote: Click here for Just as I Am/Still Bill and here for Soul
Power (featuring Withers). Images from Dante Ross and SXSW.