Gone are the days when people sit down and listen to an album from beginning to end. Of course, gone are the days when most people refer to albums, at least in popular culture. We have become an iTunes culture where we are satisfied to buy one song at a time, rarely listening to complete albums. I would venture to guess that few popular artists go through the same thought process in putting together music that artists once did.
The other day, I was browsing the cheap CDs at Barnes and Noble. It’s a new year, but I am always seeking out new music and new stories. To be honest, I’m not sure why the CDs that are there are there, they would hardly be categorized as “cheap” CDs. This isn’t so much because of price but because of quality. Artists such as James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nilsson, and others can be found in this section. It was my good fortune to find an album by Billie Holiday there called “Lady In Satin.”
Columbia Records was a powerhouse back in the day and much thought was given to the liner notes on albums. Over the years, as albums have been re-released, Columbia has reproduced the original liner notes from albums. This album was one who had new liner notes on the back of the CD for the reissue. I read them and was intrigued, leading me to pull out my smartphone and do a search for some reviews.
“Lady In Satin” was recorded about 17 months before Billie Holiday would finally succumb to the hard life she lived, at the young age of 44. Her life of addiction and abuse had caught up to her but she wasn’t going out without a fight. She had desperately wanted to make this album with Ray Ellis and his orchestra. For what can retrospectively be called a “swan song,” this album is eerily close to what Holiday might have actually chosen had she known what the not too distant future would hold. Maybe she was prophetic in some strange sense.
The album may be painful for some Billie Holiday fans to listen to, her voice is a far cry from what it had been 20 years before and in the prime of her career. Going back and listening to an album like “Lady Sings the Blues” is a stark contrast from the listening experience of “Lady In Satin.” This album shows a weary and worn Holiday. She struggles to sustain notes and present them as melodically as she once did. The years of heroin, alcohol, and other abuses are more than evident in her ragged voice.
The re-release gives a clearer picture to what was happening during the recording. The track entitled “The End Of A Love Affair: The Audio Story” has Holiday struggling to hear the band, struggling to learn the tune and melody, and just sounding downright rundown.
Others have written about this album and I read snippets here and there before I decided to dive right in and give it a listen myself. While there are plenty of other highlights that people mention, to me, the most haunting piece is a song called “For All We Know.” Listening to it is enough to cause a person to weep as they think about the words and just what was in store for Holiday in a little more than a year.
I am always drawn to stories like this. They fascinate me. This plays out like a car wreck where you can’t look away but there is horror in observing. I almost feel like a voyeur, catching an intimate glimpse of real “soul music” sung by someone who has experienced tragedy, heartache, and who has the scars and addictions to prove it.
“Lady In Satin” isn’t for those who like to download the latest Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga song, it’s an album that takes commitment to listen, I mean really listen, beginning to end. It tells a story, the story of a life that was cut short, the story of a life that took a turn for the worse. There is a strange beauty that is seen in this last glimpse of Holiday and it’s a glimpse that’s worth looking at. The look might not last long and you might not even want to look often, but when you do, there will be poignancy in that look.