When I was about 14-15 years old? I was listening to my parents original copy of the Michael Jackson album Off The Wall,which they’d gifted me a couple of years earlier-listening to the songs on the album that were not huge radio hits. This was actually something I found myself beginning to do a lot during adolescence-viewing many kinds of art on a broader level. One of these songs struck me so strongly that I began playing it over and over in succession. It was a Stevie Wonder composition entitled “I Can’t Help It”.
Musically it was played and written in a very otherworldly manner-with layers of synthesizers and keyboards creating a romantically sophisticated atmosphere. Thematically, it’s revealed itself to me as a song whose intent is very flexible depending on the interpretation. Between Rique and myself? Esperanza Spalding has come up a lot on this blog. And it was her interpretation of this classic Stevie Wonder song which, both instrumentally and lyrically, offered it that other kind of musical flight.
The song opens with what sounds to be an ascending, bubbling high pitched electric bass or low rhythm guitar (a difference I often find difficult to distinguish). It then eases smoothly into a marching Brazilian jazz/funk drum rhythm-which in itself is accompanied by a saxophone improvisation and a lightly processed electric piano playing the refrain. Esperanza’s vocals,themselves improvising by tempo and mood,perfectly accompany the instrumentation-which proceeds in and out of the same mixture of sounds that begins the song from refrain to the final and partially unaccompanied closing chorus.
Spalding’s multi faceted treatment of this song is enhanced by another element that’s narrative rather then musical. Still on it’s own, her version of this song (in the fine jazz tradition) expands it both rhythmically an harmonically. The feeling is therefore far looser than MJ’s original interpretation. It therefore has the flavor of how the song might’ve sounded had it been done by someone like Patrice Rushen around 1975 than something from later in the decade with a more structured pop craft about it.
It’s in Esperanza’s tonally diverse vocal interpretation that the difference in lyrical intent shines through. MJ’s made the lyrics sound coy and shy-more in tune with his own personality. On this version? It’s the narrative structure of the accompanying music video that sets the tone. We see Esperanza romantically disconnected from her boyfriend-all the while remembering a deeper romance she once had with a female artist. The more adolescent romantic fantasy of the original is replaced here by the confusion over ones sexual orientation as an adult whose already in a relationship. So in the case of both musical,lyrical and visual interpretation? This is by far the most powerful version of the song I’ve yet heard!