by Library Staff
Are you tired of cookie-cutter songs with interchangeable melodies, sung by manufactured celebrities packaged in sound-bite-sized pieces? If so, I invite you to listen to one song which is the complete antithesis of this: “Isn’t It a Pity” by Nina Simone, from the album Emergency Ward (also available on Freegal).
Based on a 1970 George Harrison tune, this is a sprawling, jaw-dropping cover version like no other. The original uptempo song is almost unrecognizable, and Nina’s interpretation of it as a mournful ballad contrasts sharply with other artists’ renditions as well. With nothing but a piano and her voice (and a smidgeon of bass), Nina takes you on a journey over the course of more than eleven (!) extraordinary minutes, plumbing depths of feeling unparalleled in contemporary music. American Idol, this ain’t.
And oh, what an instrument her voice is: Nina growls, whispers, sobs, cajoles, thunders, cries, and soars unlike any singer you’ve ever heard. She improvises and embellishes the original lyrics throughout, adding sentiments both simple and profound that pierce your heart with their directness. (Do not settle for the shorter, edited version of the song available on some of her other albums; you will miss the best of these improvised lines.)
Who has time to listen to an 11-minute song? Exactly. This is a piece of music that unfolds at a measured, introspective pace, which is its true genius: the form mirrors the content. A lament for lost love and a plea to slow down and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, the song compels—and challenges—you to do exactly that through the simple act of listening to it in its entirety. No multi-tasking here: for this tune, you’ll need to settle in, get comfortable and let the experience envelop you.
Incredibly intimate, hushed passages—often half-spoken, half-sung—build to an overwhelming crescendo, and then the intensity subsides and starts all over again. Some of the refrains are so quiet that you can actually hear a metronome quietly ticking away in the background, Nina’s jewelry softly jangling as she plays the piano. And the keening of her raw, tremulous contralto leaves no doubt that overdubbing and auto-tuning have no place in this recording.
Just when you think the song can’t go any deeper, Nina peels away still more onion-layers of her soul. By the time she sighs the final, bittersweet verse—prolonging the word “plastic” with her heartbreaking delivery—you will be shattered…and transformed.
Mankind don’t stand a chance
Don’t know nothin’ about romance
Everything is plas—ti—c
Isn’t it a pity…
This song will remain with you for days after listening. And if you want to experience some other unforgettable examples of Nina Simone’s artistry, check out the songs “Everything Must Change” from the album Baltimore (on Freegal) or “Wild Is the Wind” from The Best of Nina Simone.