Angel in the Dark
“I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting . . . I can say anything. It’s about self-expression. It knows no package—there’s no such thing. That’s what an artist is.”
There’s something regal and dignified about the photos of Laura Nyro that grace Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Gonna Take a Miracle. On Eli, her stylized image is bathed in light and set against a darkened backdrop, much like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”. On Tendaberry, a black & white photo captures Nyro flinging her long hair against an indistinct New York setting, while Miracle displays her as is, plain-faced and framed by loose strands of hair. In each instance, Columbia made the smart choice by allowing Nyro’s classical portrait to be the foremost image. Like a close-up of a silent screen star, the depths and shadows of her face prove endlessly fascinating, drawing us in and setting the mood for each album.
No matter how splendidly these photos set the mood though, listening to Nyro can be a bit overwhelming. It’s easy to be swallowed into Nyro’s sensuous voice alone. It dips, soars, jumps, stalls, spits, and squalls, twisting words that will have the listener reaching for the lyric sheet. Such gymnastics may sound a bit hysterical, but they never are. Nyro’s voice always retains its beautiful essence and injects an emotional resonance into the material. Her style, however, demands that she deliver each phrase, each individual word, with her full being. She isn’t trying to impress the listener with how good she can sing. She’s trying her damnedest to fulfill the promise of the song she has written. In a sense, her performance—in the studio no less—inhabits the song.
These renditions, in fact, are so intense, so on an emotional edge, that it would seem impossible to replicate them in exactly the same fashion.
For me, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession stands as Nyro’s pinnacle achievement. Listening to the entire album at once is almost too much: there are so many elements to take in that it seems better to break it down into three or four tracks at a time. In this manner, the album’s multifaceted nature reminds me of the Band’s second album. It’s so rich, layered, and full, as though an album’s worth of ideas has been crammed onto each track. It isn’t always clear what Nyro’s singing about, but it never really matters. Everything—the vocals, writing, arrangements, and production—mesh together into an emotional flood that washes over the listener. One also senses an ambitiousness that makes Eli so much more rewarding than the average singer-songwriter effort today. Perhaps it was the mindset of the mid-to-late ‘60s—an openness to new sounds, to experimenting, and to making the bigger statements—or perhaps it was just Nyro’s gifts.
Three soulful pieces, “Luckie”, “Lu”, and “Sweet Blindness”, offer a catchy beginning to Eli, though none of these qualify as typical pop. The changing tempos, complex arrangements, and emotive vocals fill these tunes with an overabundance of energy that threatens to free the songs from their very structures. Despite this charged start, the album takes an artistic leap of faith with “Poverty Train”. The song kicks off with an acoustic blues lick and sensual, drugged-out singing, before digging into a vision of life on the edge of survival. Nyro paints her impressionistic vision on a large canvas, dipping dark, expressive colors from her palette and spreading them with broad brush strokes. Strings, flutes, and changes in timing, topped by a wrenching vocal, build a poetic suite that evokes the wasted lives that poverty generates.
There is much, much more. “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Eli’s Comin’” will be most familiar. “Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe)” qualifies as the most ambitious piece, splitting into multiple parts that makes Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” seem like child’s play. And one will want to stick around for the sexy “Confession”, where the singer confides, “love my lovething / Super ride inside my lovething / You may disappear / But you’ll be back I swear”.
Eccentric, arty, and to many, pure genius, New York Tendaberry is a shattered mirror trying to piece itself back together. The shards reflect beauty, terror, and emotion wrung out of an artist trying to lay everything on the line. Whereas Eli‘s fluctuating tempos made individual pieces both exciting and unpredictable, the material on Tendaberry springs from a more personal and less communicated vision. Eli was an accidental masterwork spun out of pure energy; Tendaberry, a more fractured one ripped from the far reaches of the subconscious.
Tendaberry is considered by some to be even better than Eli, though the album is much less accessible. One can listen to the first three tracks successively and have no solid idea where one track ends and the next begins. While Nyro’s ever-shifting tempos added splendid surprises to “Eli’s Comin’” and “Stoned Soul Picnic”, her stops and starts, and generally sluggish pace, create a music almost avant-garde on “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry”. Emotively, she sounds committed. But when she begins to sing about moving to the country to kill her lover in “Tom Cat Goodby”, she leaves the impression that she’s been reading Freud in a coffee house with Jim Morrison. There are lovely passages in “Captain for Dark Mornings”, and a frenzy of chills when Nyro screeches out the lyrics in the middle of “Tom Cat Goodby”, but these are set in the center of artistic chaos. Luckily, “Mercy on Broadway” and “Save the Country”, probably the most accessible tracks on the album, revert to more familiar structures.
One gathers from Tendaberry‘s liner notes that Nyro took her sweet time recording the album. The sessions stretched out for nine months or so, and by then, producer Roy Halee had fallen out with Nyro over her inability to bring the album to a close. Artistic control, it seems, comes at a price, and one can argue whether the artist always knows best. Either way, there are definite advantages—or at least, there have been—to recording with a major label. It’s impossible to imagine an independent label today spending the money necessary for the arrangements on Eli, or allowing an artist (who didn’t necessarily make a lot of money for the label) to take nine months to put together Tendaberry.
Nyro joined with the vocal trio Labelle for ten pop/soul standards on Gonna Take a Miracle, the easiest of these three records to approach. It qualifies as an album that has an immediately perceptible intelligence, one that doesn’t require “getting used to”. The complex arrangements and ambitious visions of earlier albums have been replaced by a desire to offer fresh versions of a handful of pop standards—an odd artistic choice, perhaps, but a satisfying one. While the previous album required nine months of careful tinkering, the tracks for Miracle were apparently laid down in a week’s time.
Miracle offers perfect pacing, alternating slower cuts like “The Bells”, “Spanish Harlem”, and “The Wind” with upbeat ones like “Monkey Time/Dancing in the Street”, “Jimmy Mack”, and “Nowhere to Run”. “You’ve Really God a Hold on Me” qualifies as the standout among excellent tracks. Nyro and Labelle meld into a perfectly matched unit on this number, bringing forth the desperate lyric with such ardent force that you’ll buy every word of it. When the group arrives at the chorus, soulful emotion pours out of the speakers. The ending winds up in a flourish, with the passion picking up the tempo to the cry of “hold me baby and don’t turn me loose”. A fully realized moment on a fully realized album.
All three albums include several bonus tracks. Lightly adorned demos of “Lu”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, and “Emmie” offer an interesting counterpoint to the official tracks, while the single version of “Save the Country” reveals an earlier pop production quite at odds with the album cut. There are also live, stripped-down versions of “Natural Woman” and “Up on the Roof”. None of these re-issued albums come close to 75 minutes, and Columbia could’ve crammed each one full of more vault material. While this might have been enlightening, it’s doubtful that anything would have really added to the value of the package. The albums are fine as they are, and there don’t seem to be any lost masterpieces.
It seems odd in retrospect that Nyro’s songs only became hits when other singers/groups recorded them. Her versions, to me, always surpass the sanitized pop of Three Dog Night and the Fifth Dimension. While one might guess that the changing tempos and vocal leaps proved too challenging for popular audiences, Tendaberry, the most difficult of the three albums, charted the highest. Some things—like matters of taste and the effectiveness of marketing—are eternal mysteries. While it’s too bad that Nyro’s versions of “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Eli’s Coming” never made the Top 40, at least she got to keep the BMI royalties.
The fact that Nyro dropped out of the music business after Gonna Take a Miracle seems like the next logical step after listening to these three recordings. Sure, she could pour her soul into several high-quality albums in secession, but she couldn’t keep up the pace forever. Nobody could. Besides, she’d finished her record deal with Columbia and said all she had to say for the time being. In fact, she’d probably said it by the time she finished Tendaberry, and must have slowly realized this over the following two years. Miracle, then, capped off her early career by offering another definitive artistic statement and by paying her respects to her pop/soul roots. Leaving it all behind was a daring declaration, and one, perhaps, that should’ve been expected by an artist who had made uncompromising albums like Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Gonna Take a Miracle.