VOICES: 1/ The Faux Pathetic Fallacy
Ann Peebles: "I Can't Stand the Rain" (Hi, 1973)
John Lennon called it "the best record ever" but he was having a funny old year in 1973 so may have been exaggerating. Yet listen to it: you can feel what he was getting at, you really can. Even if you take the view that "I Can't Stand the Rain" is not quite the best record ever then it is surely among the most plangent, the most plaintive, the most loaded with an intense concentrate of mood – especially when you take into account the song's short duration (2.30) and its modest freight of language. Lennon was always more than happy to take on board intense concentrations of whatever you've got, and "I Can't Stand the Rain" used to come on the radio back then like an exorcist turning up at a children's party. It was somewhat unexpected. It was forbidding. It induced uncomprehending shivers in the room.
Peebles is one of the many daughters of a St Louis Gospel family. She was in her mid-twenties at the time of recording her fourth album in Willie Mitchell's Ardent studio in Memphis, and the song was the product of an evening out with her song-writing husband Don Bryant – an evening interrupted by a sudden squall of rain.
But this was no facile deployment of the "pathetic fallacy", not in the conventional lit-crit sense of the expression: the rain does not embody the singer's low feeling, the music does. Her emotions are not of the soggy kind, nor does her voice trickle wetly. In fact the rain, if it has an auditory presence in the song at all, registers only in the abrupt plipping of the electric timbale motif which opens the show, like fat raindrops on glazing at the very start of a downpour. But then Mitchell's famous Hi rhythm unit (see also Al Green) settles into a chug for the ages and of the electric timbale no more is heard.
While all this is going on, the singing voice scours the room. Peebles' pipes are withering at the best of times – anyone who has ever listened in a less-than robust frame of mind to her version of the R&B classic of contempt "I Pity the Fool" knows what it is to be withered – but here they shape a narrow column of moving air so stark in tone and vector that you fear that dissociation may be afoot. "My window-hoh", she excoriates and you realise with a frown that it isn't the rain she's concerned with but the glass and putty holding the weather at bay. Why did that slicked and misting surface not do better? Can it reflect, please, just for a moment, on the sweetness of the lost and gone-before? Ann is talking to the window.
And it gets more serious than that. After a brief chorus she's back sounding even more imperious, but now she's in the bedroom, talking to the pillow: "I know you got some sweet memories / But like a win-dow you ain't got noth-ing to say." Her contempt for the pillow is cold flame. And all the while, the rhythm chugs, the horns jut and two flexing knuckles articulate the shiver of the lost and gone on a chilling droop of organ notes.
It's the best record ever. For two minutes and thirty seconds it really is. And then you come out of that dark room and leave the building, and all of a sudden you feel the rain on your face, cooling, moist and natural. It is a balm.
Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.