Rediscover: Roberta Flack: Chapter Two

Rediscover: Roberta Flack: Chapter Two

For many people, Roberta Flack will only be the artist who sang “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Even if we set aside for a moment that her version of the song was not the first (that distinction goes to Lori Lieberman, who also co-wrote it) and that her cover may not be the most famous anymore (close your eyes and imagine a moment when Lauryn Hill was still showing up on time to concerts), we can still recognize this as unjust. Clearly, Roberta Flack’s legacy should not rest on a single song.

Or should it? There’s something perfectly appropriate about the song’s close connection to Flack’s career. She is an artist who has built her accomplishments upon the songs of others: she never released an album of originals, and only a handful of her LPs feature songs that she wrote or co-wrote. It works out perfectly, then, that her most well-known track is not only someone else’s song but also about someone else’s song.

There’s also that soft death subject matter. If we return to Flack’s early work, we recognize right away that she is an artist whose forte is conveying pain through creative restraint. Her music destroys quietly, subtly, slowly, and it shows her own gentle destruction at its hands. We should most certainly not hold it against Flack that she doesn’t write many songs of her own. She is an artist who powerfully demonstrates the importance of listening intently and showing through performance that this intensive listening reveals, deep down, uncharted chambers of feeling.

It’s worth returning to her sophomore album, 1970’s Chapter Two (released just one year after her debut, 1969’s First Take), because it highlights both the power of Flack’s performances and the obstructions that could sometimes obscure that power. It consists of just eight tracks representing an almost laughable range of genres: soul, rock, folk, Broadway, pop and protest. Even if the album doesn’t always feel cohesive, it’s amazing to hear Flack take on this stylistic smorgasbord with her characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.

“Until It’s Time for You to Go,” written by Buffy Sainte-Marie and first released in 1965, marks a useful starting point for assessing Flack’s approach. Saint-Marie’s version lasts only two-and-a-half minutes, but Flack stretches the song out to double this length by slowing the tempo and repeating certain passages for emphasis. The arrangement here is ornate without being too syrupy or sentimental. Like a lot of the songs on Chapter Two, it gingerly begins with Flack’s piano, Terry Plumeri’s bass and Bernard Sweetney’s gentle drums. Other musicians enter the mix over time, including Hubert Laws and aptly named Joe Gentle on flutes as well as nine different players on strings, but they’re undoubtedly only here to supplement Flack’s voice, which builds to a climax around three quarters of the way through. “Don’t ask forever of me/ Love me now/ Love me now,” Flack belts, but not in a way that seems excessive—she’s just mournfully luxuriating in a relationship’s final moments. The strings are especially sweeping here, but thankfully they don’t have a fighting chance to swallow up this sublime expression of love.

At other moments, all the extras—and when it comes to Flack’s voice and piano-playing, we might as well consider everything else an extra—are an unnecessary distraction, as on “The Impossible Dream” and “Business Goes on as Usual.” Part of the problem is the song selection: the former is always bombastic nonsense (apologies to the leagues of grandmas and grandpas who seem to love it), and the latter contains some whack-ass lines about deodorant and clothing racks. But the orchestrations don’t do these two tracks any favors. “The Impossible Dream” both opens and closes with a ridiculous instrumental flourish that signal this rendition’s immoderation, and the strings sound like they’re trying to claw their way up to, well, some unreachable star. “Business Goes on as Usual” is mercifully more subdued, but someone—perhaps Joel Dorn, the album’s main producer—had the not-so-bright idea for the song’s drums to imitate the military rat-a-tat of a wartime march. The decision calls attention to heavy-handed irony at the expense of general unease, even though Flack’s performance of the final lines does come across as genuinely unsettling. She could certainly recognize the song’s tragic acknowledgment of consumerism’s unflappable fervor, even while this rendering’s overall presentation cannot.

With better material as a starting point, the album thrives. Flack proves herself especially talented at accentuating poetic moments, helping lines that could appear pretentious in the hands of less capable artists instead come across as poignant. “So you just do what you gotta do, my wild sweet love/ Though it may mean that I’ll never kiss those sweet lips again/ Pay that no mind, find that baffled dream of yours/ Come on back and see me when you can,” she sings during her take on Jimmy Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do.” Here, as on “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” we feel Flack’s pain upon departure: she always seems to be missing someone or on the verge of doing so, aware as she is of fleeting happiness. But there’s bitterness here, too, that renders the usual “dappled dream” of the song as “baffled dream.” The implication is that her lover’s fantasies are dull and perhaps foolish compared to the affection she offers, and this makes the song less self-righteous and saintly than it seems at first glance.

Flack works with Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” to similar effect. Although a number of artists had covered the song before she did, Flack was the first solo female artist to record it. She fully inhabits the track by taking on, at various points, both Dylan’s perspective and the perspective of the woman he describes. “I take just like a woman/ And I make love just like a woman/ And I ache just like a woman/ And I break up like a little girl,” she sings. These lines turn Dylan’s takedown into a revelation, since she doesn’t break like a little girl—she breaks up like one. This is to say that her response is suitably emotional rather than pathetically fragile. Loss and insult merely remind her of the pain she’s been sorting through for the duration of her life.

Another subtle adjustment in the rendition further emphasizes the difference between her position and Dylan’s. Dylan’s version goes, “Lately I see her ribbons and her bows/ Have fallen from her curls,” while Flack’s goes, “Lately I’ve shown my ribbons and my bows/ And my problems, from my curls.” This allows us to see that both Flack’s femininity and blackness are connected to her particular plight, while Dylan doesn’t seem to care at all about what might cause his words to hurt his lover.

Chapter Two finds Flack playing not only with perspective and subtle change but also with new collaborations and sonic palettes. Six of the album’s tracks—and every song I’ve discussed so far—feature Flack on piano with the aforementioned group of musicians in support. But the first track on each side finds Flack working with a completely different set of instrumentalists and providing vocals only. We can hear the difference: these songs are bigger, brassier and funkier, in large part due to Donny Hathaway’s arrangements. While they still present Flack’s signature restraint, the tracks refract this restraint into bolder shapes and patterns.

The overall effect is sultry and transgressive on album-opening “Reverend Lee,” which tells the tale of a “very big, black, strong/ Sexy Southern Baptist minister” who ends up getting seduced by Satan’s daughter. Flack’s cover of the Eugene McDaniels track both sympathizes with Satan’s daughter and pokes fun at the minister for taking the situation so seriously in the first place. Her performance, especially the introduction and its pleading conclusion (“Reverend Lee, do it to me”), is sexually charged yet fully aware of the tune’s ludicrous setup. This allows the performance to criticize the religion-backed masculinity of the lyrics and also do a little role play for the literal hell of it.

Charles Rainey’s bubbling electric bass and an eight-member horn section, which calls forth with all the fire and brimstone of an eschatological parable, are the stars of the show on “Reverend Lee.” They also shine on “Gone Away,” which starts gently before bursting out in plaintive glory during a moment immortalized, via sample, on T.I.’s “What You Know.” This song, side two’s opener, details the confusion involved in hurting a companion and the resulting fallout: its narrator can’t figure out if the relationship is destroyed forever or only for an instant. “Yet I believe sometimes that I’ve lost you, baby/ I’ve lost you, baby, and you are gone,” Flack sings, and the second time she does so, the horns ring out, as if to testify to the immensity of absence. A choir of voices—Flack’s own, and those of Eugene McDaniels, Donny Hathaway and King Curtis—joins along to carry the track to its conclusion. They don’t sing words, just a series of “la’s,” for the grief is too unbearable to verbalize.

Flack includes a brief note on the back of the record. “An artist must be relaxed and free of tension in order to record properly,” it partially reads. Flack sounds most relaxed and at home in these two opening tracks, which foreshadow her continuing collaboration with Hathaway until his death just nine years later, at the age of 33. They released a duet album in 1972 and intended to put out another, but Hathaway committed suicide early on in the recording process, not long after a final dinner with Flack. These facts make “Gone Away” seem even more agonizingly celestial; Hathaway was soon to be gone forever.

This can intensify listeners’ disappointment that Chapter Two has more or less been forgotten to time. As Genevieve Koski points out, its 1970 release date occurred before Flack’s first album grew in popularity from Clint Eastwood’s use of one of its tracks (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) in his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. As a result, First Take shot to the top of the charts in 1972, the same year that Flack released her commercially-successful duet album with Hathaway, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. Her following album, Killing Me Softly, came out the next year, and, after that, there was no looking back.

Chapter Two may be uneven, but its place in Flack’s discography is crucial insofar as it both continues the delicate sound of her first album and shows that sound blossoming out into fruitful, enjoyable relationships with other artists. Moreover, it provides a master class in patient interpretation that artists ranging from HAIM to Frank Ocean have studied and worked into their own sterling covers. The album definitively shows that Flack is much more than “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” even as it reveals the centrality of the words and tunes that other artists wrote to her career. Flack holds these materials in the palm of her hand and shapes them into sculptures of her own, simply through the painstaking craft of performance.

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