Wednesday, 16 July 2008

GEORGE JONES: These Days (I Barely Get By)

If Deep Soul is a state of mind then it can be found anywhere and in anyone, even though some are better at articulating it than others. Like sportsmen, the best - or at least, the most "soulful" - of singers frequently turn out to be those who don't appear to be trying or sweating as hard as others; it's the old faithful of matches or races being won by those who try less, or seem to need the victory less.

Listening to George Jones it's hard to pinpoint exactly where his magic occurs, although it is obviously present. He never seems to do much except sing in what is more or less his normal, used-for-speaking voice. There are no vibratos, no acrobatic grandstanding, and yet, through its slow, painful patience, his voice punctumises you dead centre.

"These Days" is a tacit case in point. Recorded towards the end of 1974, two weeks before Christmas Day and two days before he walked out on Tammy "for good," it presents us with a picture of Jones seemingly willing his own premature and ruinous end. It is, essentially, the same old same old, except that his woes methodically stack up like an especially shaky house of bamboo cards. And he of course has his unobtrusive techniques for communicating this to us; the extended "aching" in the first line illustrates both his early frustration and the hint of Lear-esque descent to come. The last thing he feels like doing is working, but he'll give it a try, even if he has to thumb all the way - his car's in the shop, but by the glassy stress he puts on the word "shop" the implication is that it's there to stay because he can't afford to pay the labour costs. No clearcut city like London or Toronto, this, with its convenient buses and tubes.

The music is standard Sherrill-issue C&W waltz grief; a choir of angels even materialises at the start of the second verse in expectation as Jones experiences further microhumiliations - he has to walk all the way home from work and it rains all the way. So sodden with self-pity is he that he doesn't even realise that he's answered his own question: "My wife left and didn't say why," he says, before immediately noting "She laid all our bills on the desk in the hall."

The sorrow grows more constant and gruelling. He puts his last two dollars on his favourite horse; it loses by a nose and he cries, but puts all the crying weight through the word "nose." Then his boss comes and talks to him; we fear a fiery firing, but he's as mournful as George and suggests that "come winter we'll all be laid off."

It is at this point that he collapses, weeping on high on the extended "wanna" of "I wanna give up, lay down and die." He makes it clear that his wife's departure is the main source of his pain, but at the end turns to the fourth wall and proclaims in a curious Sandringham Palace-via-Nashville tone that "oh, these days, one barely gets by," fully aware that he has worked hard at building one's own crucifix.