Nina Simone’s work, eclectic and nuanced, continually surprises. Her rendition of Jacques Brel’s “The Desperate Ones” is one of countless such displays. A delicate and poetic gem (which appeared on our November mix), the tune closes out Simone’s 1969 LP Nina Simone and Piano! The title is literal: it features only her voice and piano.
Released between the better known ‘Nuff Said! and To Love Somebody, the album closes with “The Desperate Ones” — quiet, somber, evocative and strange. The gentle ballad, suggestively about suicide, is believed to be about the lost and forgotten souls in the wake of the failed ’60s peace movement.
Nina plays every chord slowly and deliberately, singing almost in spoken word, as though she were reciting a poem. Her performance is eccentric, almost theatrical, but never insincere. Her voice sails across her lively vocal range — sometimes a breathy whisper, other times a deep, dramatic baritone, and sometimes emphasizing certain lines in reedy, gravelly, drawn-out notes. Her most interesting stroke, though, is her dreamy, childlike backing vocal: a kind of peaceful and naïve humming. This fantastical effect is a mesmerizing contradiction to the dark, somber nature of the lyrics: “He knows the verb ‘to love’/but he’ll never, never, never know how/on the bridge of nevermore/they disappear one by one/disappear without a sound.”
Simone’s twinkling piano notes, peculiar vocals, that incredibly distinct and dreamy humming, and even a noticeable vocal mistake, breathe an enigmatic and evocative life into the song. words / c depasquale