"Lady In Satin"
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Grunge being my go-to era of music, I know a thing or two about listening with a guilty conscience. "Dirt" by Alice in Chains is an awesome record, and I love listening to it. But when I think about how all the lyrics of addiction and self-hate are based on the biographical experiences of a band full of addicts, I worry. Am I endorsing the behavior by enjoying the music? Of course, by the time I started listening to the band, Layne Staley was dead and the rest of the band had sought help, so I don't need to point the finger at myself. And the same is true for Billie Holiday's 1958 album, "Lady in Satin." Holiday led one of the most tragic lives in music, and it's thinly masked on this, her penultimate record.
Holiday's voice, even at its peak, wasn't mind-blowing. Neither her range nor volume were special, but she could hypnotize with smooth delivery and used her voice effectively as an instrument, accompanying jazz numbers with improvised riffs and rhythmic cadences. None of this is on display during "Lady in Satin" however. The album was released a little more than a year before Holiday died of liver cirrhosis, and her performance portends the worst. Decades of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll. Once smooth as molasses, Holiday's voice is roughly hewn and her lips smack like she's cleansing her palate when she begins her lines.
So why is "Lady" such a classic album? Holiday may be at her worst vocally, but her attitude as an artist has never been stronger. She had to know where her life was headed, and this album plays like a woman coming to terms with her life. There are plenty of bluesy numbers about heartbreak, but Holiday sings them with a smile and a shrug, personifying the track "Glad To Be Unhappy." Every pronoun on the album seems like a double entendre when placed in context. Standard "I'm A Fool To Want You" is originally about a sketchy lover, but it could just as easily be about Holiday's vices (her choice of husbands was equally bad). "You've Changed" is one of her stronger vocal moments on the album, and it behaves like self-reflection.
Bandleader Ray Lewis deserves credit for his arrangements as well. It's tough to produce for someone whose voice is as beaten down as Holiday's, but Lewis ensures that the vocalist isn't trampled. Mel Davis is the biggest star among the instrumentalists, providing subtle trumpet solos on tracks such as "It's Easy To Remember."
"Lady In Satin" is a tough listen, and not because of quality. Other Holiday albums might be easier listens, and Tom Moon's recommended compilation will draw attention to Holiday at her peak. But this record is a gut check, and necessary to understand Holiday's rough life.
INTERESTING FACT: There's a little-known Grammy for "Best Historical Album," essentially given to the best collection of old work. Collections of Holiday's work have won the award four times since it was first presented in 1979.