Nina Simone’s work, eclectic and nuanced, continually surprises. Her rendition of Jacques Brel’s “The Desperate Ones” is one of countless such displays. A delicate and poetic gem (which appeared on our November mix), the tune closes out Simone’s 1969 LP Nina Simone and Piano! The title is literal: it features only her voice and piano.

Released between the better known ‘Nuff Said! and To Love Somebody, the album closes with “The Desperate Ones” — quiet, somber, evocative and strange. The gentle ballad, suggestively about suicide, is believed to be about the lost and forgotten souls in the wake of the failed ’60s peace movement.

Nina plays every chord slowly and deliberately, singing almost in spoken word, as though she were reciting a poem. Her performance is eccentric, almost theatrical, but never insincere. Her voice sails across her lively vocal range — sometimes a breathy whisper, other times a deep, dramatic baritone, and sometimes emphasizing certain lines in reedy, gravelly, drawn-out notes. Her most interesting stroke, though, is her dreamy, childlike backing vocal: a kind of peaceful and naïve humming. This fantastical effect is a mesmerizing contradiction to the dark, somber nature of the lyrics: “He knows the verb ‘to love’/but he’ll never, never, never know how/on the bridge of nevermore/they disappear one by one/disappear without a sound.”

Simone’s twinkling piano notes, peculiar vocals, that incredibly distinct and dreamy humming, and even a noticeable vocal mistake, breathe an enigmatic and evocative life into the song. words / c depasquale

Nina Simone :: The Desperate Ones

2 Responses to “Nina Simone :: The Desperate Ones”

  1. I had never heard this before. Her singing voice is amazing, but this is very powerful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Indeed a magnificent version, although I have not heard Brel’s (who to me is a better composer than singer).
    You write about her “twinkling piano notes”.
    As you may know, she studied Classical piano, and was more than acceptable, but realized that she could never be as excellent as those extraordinary persons out there—like Horowitz et al…..
    That literally was the reason she turned to pop, but more specifically the “twinkling” sounds of her hitting that keyboard, which for the uninitiated must sound rather strange, indeed a bit bizarre. The fact is that you find it all over her music, especially the unaccompanied songs, and it is PURE BACH…….those arrangements are pretty complex, and add enormously to the songs (listen to “Who am I”!), offering us a unique slice of the Classical Baroque to an audience that may never know about it. Indeed, I did not, until I read about it, and then am now a BACH devotee.
    Simone remains, 50 years after these songs were recorded, entirely “contemporary” and I can “foresee” that a hundred years from now she will still be up there with the list of those RARE, extraordinarily profound, UNIQUE artists of the 20th Century.
    Thank you!

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