Music

Lee Hazlewood Reissues Series Reveals a Genuine Masterpiece

Photo courtesy of Light in the Attic Records

This trio of reissues from the singular singer-songwriter-producer includes his collaboration with Ann-Margaret and the greatest break-up album ever made.

Requiem For an Almost Lady
Lee Hazlewood

Light in the Attic

20 Oct 2017

Forty
Lee Hazlewood

Light in the Attic

20 Oct 2017

The Cowboy & The Lady
Lee Hazlewood

Light in the Attic

20 Oct 2017

When Lee Hazlewood stopped recording in the late 1970s, he was virtually unknown, especially in the United States. He had been a prolific songwriter and producer, was responsible for Nancy Sinatra's 1966 smash "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'", and been approached by the likes of the Beatles to produce records for their Apple label. But he had also been an effective self-saboteur, dismissing the Beatles' overture out of hand and running his own label, LHI, into the ground without a single hit.

Time couldn't keep his fascinating, singular, often great body of work down, though, and gradually Hazlewood became a cult icon in spite of himself. As such, he was feted by voguish types and made something of a comeback, releasing a couple of new recordings before his death in 2007.

Facilitating Hazlewood's cultural rehabilitation in no small part has been Light in the Attic Records, a Seattle-based reissue outfit that has been sorting through a catalog that had been in various states of legitimate and illegitimate availability. This latest group consists of Forty (1969), The Cowboy & The Lady with Ann-Margaret (also 1969), and Requiem For an Almost Lady (1971). The first two are relative obscurities even for this relatively obscure artist, though they both have their merits. The third has belatedly, and rightly, been recognized as a bonafide masterpiece.

Forty was recorded in England with American expat Shel Talmy, the producer behind "You Really Got Me" and "My Generation". Forty is not rock'n'roll, though. Rather, it is a heavily-orchestrated collection of standards and covers. Generally, it manages to steer clear of schmaltz. At its best, it takes good advantage of Hazlewood's distinctive croon, a deep, dark, resigned baritone that is at once haunting and charismatic. This duality is evident on the likes of "It Was a Very Good Year", "September Song", and Talmy's own, almost gothic "Bye Babe". The real highlight, though, is "The Bed", written by Dick Heard and future country star Eddie Rabbit. Tense and claustrophobic, and with the orchestration pared down to just a sad trumpet, it radiates a Leonard Cohen-like gravitas.

"These Boots Were Made For Walkin'" had recuperated the career of Nancy Sinatra. The managers of Swedish-American actress Ann-Margaret, a former bombshell whose career had gone the way of television specials and USO tours, hoped Hazlewood could make lightning strike again. He couldn't, and The Cowboy & The Lady, recorded in Nashville, was a flop. Much of the material is pat country-western fare. Ann-Margaret's husky, sensual voice meshes nicely with Hazlewood's, and both singers sound invested in the project. Too often, though, it's oversold and over-the-top, especially on Ann-Margaret's part. The weepy duet "Am I That Easy to Forget" suits the pair well, and "Victims of the Night" is breezy and warm. The album's one indelible moment is an aside, spoken by Hazlewood at the end of Greyhound Bus Depot". As Hazlewood's protagonist travels aimlessly in hopes of forgetting a lost love, his attention is turned to another, unnamed woman as he says, "Look at her standing there with chili all over her dress… If I knew her better, I'd give her a puppy." It's the kind of line that Tom Waits would later make an entire career out of.

Such was the state of Hazlewood's career in 1971 that Requiem For an Almost Lady wasn't even released in the US. In any case, it was not going to be a surprise comeback smash. The album is quite possibly the breakup album against which all other breakup albums should be measured. "Unflinching", "brutally honest", "intensely personal" – all the phrases that have since become clichés apply, only here they are genuine. Hazlewood later claimed the album was "a composite of…memories". However, it is clearly based on his six-year relationship with LHI singer and producer Suzi Jane Hokum, who claimed Hazlewood had a copy personally delivered to her.

The ten songs chronicle the disintegration of a relationship, and the ensuing fallout. Much of the brilliance of Requiem For an Almost Lady is its emotional range. It is not singularly angry, or bitter, or sad, or defiant. It is all those things. Hazlewood narrates the album as a continuous story, starting each track with a pithy spoken-word preamble. "There were times when being together was fun. And there were times when being apart was even more fun. And there were times when there was nothing but time—and that was no fun, is how he introduces the lovely "Monday Morning". That song is sweetly resigned, but the one it follows is pure black, Hazlewood chiding his ex, "Ain't you glad I never owned a gun?"

The musical backing is unique yet perfectly fitting, with just an acoustic guitar, an electric, and bass allowing plenty of room for Hazlewood's echo-drenched voice to hang in the air. It also highlights some of Hazlewood the songwriter's most effortlessly beautiful melodies. The juxtaposition between music and material is often striking; a prettier song about abortion than "I'll Live Yesterdays" has probably never been written. The effect is never played cheaply or for shock value. "Little Miss Sunshine (Little Miss Rain)" is a lovely ode to a woman who was made by angels with "two drops of happy, one pinch of pain". The galloping "L.A. Lady" and "Must Have Been Something I Loved" are flat-out jaunty. Requiem For an Almost Lady offers heartache, but it also offers humor and humanity. The net effect is nothing if not comforting.

These reissues have been produced with care, with faithfully-remastered sound, original artwork, interesting bonus tracks, and new liner notes featuring commentary from principals such as Ann-Margaret and Hokum. Requiem For an Almost Lady is an album everyone should own. Anyone who hears it, though, will probably want to discover more about one of popular music's most strangely compelling and talented characters.

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