Refraining from “The Living Years”

You ever encounter something in music that you initially appreciate and hold in high regard but it doesn’t stand? Time passes, you engage yourself in the ditty and it starts showing flaws that start standing out? It’s this realization that both worries you (“Am I a critic now?”) and makes you understand why the song isn’t a broad sensation that passes the test of time?

There’s a number from the 1980’s doing that to me now. In some ways I’m guilt ridden by way of it because the song is highly personal… But it’s not the song itself that gets to me. No, no, The Living Years has its merits. But the flaw is too outright.

Mike and the Mechanics 1988 song didn’t just win a Grammy – it was song of the year. The arrangement is fantastic music and the lyrics are highly personal (the relationship between Mike and his father and his father’s passing). There’s nothing I can say against those key elements and they’re not what’s hitting me the wrong way. Yet these weren’t what drew me to the song as a kid; the music complimented it and I wouldn’t engage myself in the lyrics until adulthood when I came back to the song.

What gets me, what wrings me as wrong, what stands with warts? The refrain, the chorus, the element of songs that pulls the masses in.Lyrically, the refrain isn’t an issue though it is morose. That’s a truth to the entire song though, so it complements the entire number. Here, lemme give you the words:

Say it loud,
Say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear 

It’s too late
When we die
To admit we don’t see eye-to-eye

What hurts things is how it’s performed. I’m not sure if it’s a hired choir element or individual vocalists grouped together to do the chorus. It’s the delivery that is hitting me wrong and making the chorus more painful an element than it ever was.  I hear it and it sounds hollow – like they performed it in a huge studio and yet it was only 5 vocalists. It sounds empty and it doesn’t hold the power that originally hooked me on the song.

Here’s an audio contrast in music with the delivery: The opening choir in the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. That’s a children’s choir, obviously in a setting that works for their delivery so it both has the proper echo effect and supports the group instead of making it seem smaller (literally) than what it is. The clarity, to me at least, isn’t perfect, but the key element comes through good and proper and what I’d think Mick and company wanted: The refrain delivery. That started the hook of the chorus with the song in general.

Going back to “The Living Years”, thechorus has another wart on it and it’s the most painful: Mike. Mike Rutherford is part of that chorus in what’s supposed to be backing vocal elements (that I removed in the above lyric text). Part of what hits me wrong on this is the delivery by Mike (who has been the reserved lead singer of song). To be short and frank, he comes off like a lounge singer and it slights the performance.

I mean, seriously… If you’re not married to the song and listen to it, Rutherford isn’t singing for musical delivery, he’s yelling in a vocal way (Oh, say it loud; Oh, sing it clear; oh it’s too late; oh, when we die);; it’s obnoxious. It stresses the idea it’s performing but not like it’s important. It’s like Bill Murray performing his “Star Wars” send up as a lounge singer on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s:

In the case of Rutherford and “The Living Years”, I seldom get lost on the chorus and expect Mike to just be wailing and profane:

Say it loud (SING IT LOUD!!),
Say it clear (Make it clear, yeah!)
You can listen as well as you hear 

It’s too late (It’s too fruckin’ late, man!)
When we die (We’re all gonna die! Oh no)
To admit we don’t see eye-to-eye

Perhaps that comes off comical, but that’s how I’ve been experiencing the song the last few months. Between the empty/hollow sound in the refrain choir to Rutherrord’s “backing,” the song is slighted (and it’s a gorgeous song, people; I’m not trying to put it down but it comes off like that by me stating anything here).

Would there have been a better way to handle this? Yup, quite simply Rutherford remains lead vocalist on the refrain. If it ended up other band members alone doing the backing harmonies, it works. It works fine.  If it remained choir or third parties singing the backing vocals, it works well too. With Mike Rutherford in lead, it forces some control and making his declarations clear. Think of Anthony Kieidis of Red Hot Chili Peppers and the closing vocals of Under the Bridge and the support vocalists (from outside of the group) who added to the song a different but fitting dynamic.

In essence, “The Living Years” choir is a fitting dynamic, it’s just produced wrong. I’ll argue about Rutherford’s dynamic on the chorus though; the entire approach to it never should have happened.

But then again, what do I know? It won a Grammy as song of the year. I’m just a critic so many years later…