Nina Simone was a voice of mid-20th century America, as much as Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley. But where Dylan and Presley sang about being young and free and challenging the status quo, Simone’s voice conveyed the weariness of someone who was denied freedom and threatened with death for resisting social norms—norms like drinking water from a designated fountain or sitting in the back of the bus. Like other Black artists who rose to prominence after her, such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Simone would pivot away from singing simple pop songs and begin writing more political material; unlike those artists, Simone eventually left the United States, living in Liberia, Switzerland and France. It was in her expatriate years that she recorded Fodder on My Wings, which thanks to a handsome reissue by Verve/UMe, might finally enjoy the recognition it deserves as one of Simone’s most essential works.

Originally released in 1982, Fodder on My Wings followed a long period of personal and professional turmoil for Simone. The singer lived in Liberia from 1974 to 1977: “Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband,” she wrote of these years in her memoir, but she found neither, and during this time she became so abusive to her daughter that the girl returned to America live with her father. The recording of her first studio album in seven years, 1978’s Baltimore, was derailed by clashes with producer Creed Taylor, who gave Simone little input over the final track listing and even less over the production, burdening the songs with overwrought string arrangements and awkward reggae rhythms. Shortly after that album’s release, Simone was arrested for tax evasion, having refused to pay them in protest of the Vietnam War. Then, in 1980, a military coup erupted in Liberia, and amid the bloodshed two men that Simone had had relationships with died.

But when Simone sings of the country on “Liberian Calypso,” she is celebratory, not mournful. Simone’s civil rights songs were famously mournful—she was as indignant on “Mississippi Goddam” as she was despondent on “Strange Fruit”—so it can come as a shock to hear her reminisce about the time she danced, naked, until dawn at a Liberian nightclub. It’s one of her loosest and liveliest vocal performances (she even adopts a bit of patois), paired with percussion and piano that would sound right at home in a tiki bar in a tropical resort. Unsurprisingly, “Liberian Calypso” is the most fully-realized of Fodder on My Wings’ experiments with world music; Simone sought out African percussionists to perform on the album, as if she were tracing the African-American musical genres like blues and jazz on which she had built her career back to their roots.

More than that, the song—as with many others on the album—reveals a glimpse of Simone that her music and public life seldom reflected. Fodder on My Wings is Simone’s only album on which she wrote, co-wrote or arranged every track (she also produced it herself). More than anything else in her discography, it feels like a collection of personal statements, maintaining its narrative cohesion even as it toggles between its creator’s mania and depression. Sometimes the statements these songs make are right there in their names. Opener “I Sing Just to Know That I’m Alive” rides another calypso groove that’s almost defiant in its unabashed joyousness. “I Was Just a Stupid Dog to Them” and “They Took My Hand” invoke the ghost of Bob Marley as Simone lashes out against an indifferent audience. “Color Is a Beautiful Thing” consists of little other than its title, repeated like a mantra.

Other songs reckon with more complex emotions. The quasi-title track, “Fodder in Her Wings,” is one of the best songs in Simone’s post-Philips Records years, as well as one of her most musically ambitious compositions. What begins as a mellow, marimba-heavy number shifts into a dreamy piano passage, as if Simone is taking us deep inside her mind. Then, three and a half minutes in, she begins to sing, hauntingly: “A bird fell to earth, reincarnated from her birth/ She had fodder in her wings/ She had dust inside her brains/ She flitted here and there/ United States, Switzerland, France, England, everywhere.

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that Simone was singing about herself here: a fragile and damaged being, living in a world that was also damaged, to the point where the only thing it could offer people like her was the promise of further damage.

And then there’s “Alone Again Naturally,” a rewrite of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s histrionic ballad that turns it into a heartbreaking reflection on her father’s death a decade prior. (Early reissues of Fodder on My Wings tacked the song onto the end as a bonus track; here, it’s at the literal heart of the record.) She was once his favorite child, and yet she rejoiced at the news that the blind, withered old man who was of no help to his struggling daughter was three weeks from death. But when his death finally comes, Simone is devastated: “My dad and I were close as flies/ I loved him then, and I love him still, that’s why my heart’s so broken.” When Simone concludes the song with O’Sullivan’s words—“Leaving me to doubt God in His mercy/ And if He really does exist, then why did He desert me?”—it packs the emotional wallop of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell.

Fodder on My Wings was not the end of Simone’s recording career, but it didn’t spark an artistic renaissance, either. Though she continued to tour through the 1980s and 1990s, Simone only released two more studio albums—the glossy, synth-y disaster Nina’s Back and the genteel swan song A Single Woman—neither of which were critical or commercial successes. But none of this blunts the impact of Fodder on My Wings, which if anything has only grown in stature, and will hopefully continue to grow thanks to this reissue. It plays like the travelogue of a woman who survived America, survived hell, and then sang about it all.

Plays like the travelogue of a woman who survived America, survived hell, and then sang about it all.
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