OK, Mr Smith, you got me. I mean, what can I say when the Hound Dog of Love comes up with a song like ‘Valentine’s Day’? It’s a perfectly pitched follow up to ‘I’m Gonna Change’ in which Smith made all sorts of promises in an attempt to keep his love for his partner, Fremantle/Walyalyp Americana artist, Helen Townsend, alive. Townsend responded with ‘Melbourne Streets’ literally writing and singing out her doubt from one of the most overcast cities in the world. And then this.
At first, I wanted to hate ‘Valentine’s Day’…
Featuring the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals and a piano étude that’s played with the deft hands of country heartbreaker and recorded with reverb that goes on forever without ever overstaying its welcome, ‘Valentine’s Day’ is an irresistible plea that ends with the promise of eternal love as Smith pledges to sing the song for his paramour, Every Valentine’s Day.
At first, I wanted to hate ‘Valentine’s Day’ for all its echoes of the belly crawling snake who wrote ‘I’m Gonna Change’ (which is a great song, don’t get me wrong, I just wasn’t convinced about Smith’s sincerity), but I couldn’t. Each successive listen drew me further into the slow-burn splendour of the song and its arrangement, Smith’s voice carrying the perfect amount of gravitas and anguish and the McCrary Sisters bringing it home with their vocal accents that just about steal the show.
On the surface, ‘Valentine’s Day’ is a throwaway love song, the sort that musicians of all styles and geographies churn out because they know that love — whether you’re breaking up or making up — sells. They’re nice to listen to on some Spotify playlist, but mostly utterly forgettable, nothing you’d press pause on so you could check out the artist. ‘Valentine’s Day’ somehow transcends this trope so that Smith can get away with rhyming couplets like, I wrote you a song for Valentine’s Day / So you would know I’m feeling this way, which must have been stolen from the Little Book of Banal Rhymes, and makes the heartbreak he’s caused all about how he’s feeling. Yes, Shannon, I still see you.
How does he get away with it? By moving on to acknowledge the complexity of human relationships, singing, How can I show these words that I say / Aren’t the same words I used when I knowingly led you astray? And then, of course, he goes all metaphysical, invoking the ghost of John Donne when he promises a love that will transcend the limits of mortality. It’s a conceit, yes, but it’s also pure poetry.
I hope Smith intended ‘Valentine’s Day’ to be built around that lyrical progression, because it’s approaching something like minor genius. But even if it’s all a gift of the creative stream, the point is the stream chose Smith to tell this story and he nailed it to the wall so incredibly well.
I can’t wait for Townsend’s response.
* * * * * * * * *