Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

by PC Muñoz

4 August 2009


“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974

The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.

You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.
“You” is quite different than most of Withers’ hit songs in both mood and structure. It begins with his band already at full-steam groove, and has no immediate hook figure. Instead, the song draws you in with Withers’ chant-like vocal, which declares the situation at hand (his lady trying to get him to go to a shrink) with the opening line: “You want to take me to a doctor / To talk to me about my mind / Trying to get direction to some places /  I don’t really want to find.” He concludes that first verse with a kiss-off line which aptly sums up his attitude throughout the song: “I’m really not that complicated / your good doctor friend, he ought to talk to you!”

Withers then spends the rest of the song alternately reeling off biting put-downs, and waxing philosophical. A chorus-like vocal part emerges, then fades back, never to return. The hypnotic, electric-piano driven groove stays funk-steady the whole time, a genius production choice which highlights the unlikely lyrical content and vocal. For sure, “You” is the sound of a sensitive, introspective (yet fully assured) man purging bitter feelings, but as usual with Bill Withers, there’s something else at work: a sense of balanced perspective, and even personal accountability, evidenced in lines like “All you find looking back / Is the fact that / Both of us was wrong.” If one digs a little deeper in the lyric, one also finds the songwriter possibly dabbling a little in self-help. The turbulence in the described relationship has apparently thrown him for a loop, and he sings lines like “You really only got two choices / You can lay down and be weak / Or stand up where you at / And still be strong” seemingly in the interest of his own emotional survival.  A few lines later, though, he’s back with the barbs: “I got to take a ton of lies / Just to get an ounce of truth from you /You’re like a man lovin’ Jesus / Who says he can’t stand the Jew.”

There is nothing evasive, subtle, or passive-aggressive about “You.” The anger is palpable, the insults are direct, and the words even seem to specifically reference some sort of shared history. Towards the end of the song, in the fade-out, Withers explicitly evokes “the dozens”, as if his cache of put-downs is capacious enough to keep going well after the song is over. The rest of the +‘Justments album never flashes as much negativity, though there’s plenty of melancholy to go around. It’s one of my favorite Bill Withers albums, easily as listenable as his more famous records. Thirty-five years later,“You” remains a fascinating and revealing listen, a moment when one of pop’s most reclusive writers pulled back the curtain for a moment and delivered a highly personal message.

+ + +

A documentary film on Withers called “Still Bill” debuted at SXSW this year. I happened to catch a snippet of it recently, and was happy to see the man smiling, laughing, and talking about his humble West Virginian roots. Like many songwriters worldwide, I can’t wait to see it, and learn more about one of the greatest. stillbillthemovie.com

+‘Justments is currently available on iTunes.

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