Niecy Illustrates the Bittersweetness of Freedom
Feeling you close to me
Makes all my senses smile…
If you’ve ever searched in vain for some way to describe how deeply you’ve loved someone, these are words that might express what you couldn’t. They have always had the effect of making me smilingly wistful. I first saw them in an e-mail message from Sidra, an ex with whom I’ve long since lost touch. They, of course, registered in a different way for me then, but their impact isn’t constrained by the moment of contact. More on that in a moment.
They come from a song called “Free” on Deniece Williams’s debut major-label album This Is Niecy. After I confessed to Sidra that I didn’t know the song or the album, she promptly bought a copy and put it in the mail. When it arrived and I listened to it, I felt a momentary twinge of sadness, wondering whether my life would have been richer had I known it earlier. Even more, I wondered whether Williams had in fact authored those amazing words. Judging from the songwriter credits, I suspect she did indeed.
The track appears in what is roughly the album’s second half. It’s nestled alongside some tracks that are a powerful reminder of how brilliant R&B has been and can be. Part of the record’s majesty results from the jazz-meets-EWF-meets-R&B smoothness and spikiness of the arrangements. Given that description, it should come as no surprise that Maurice White, Charles Stepney, Verdine White and Freddie White of EWF (Earth, Wind, and Fire) served in various roles (as producer, arranger, bassist and drummer, respectively) on the album. They impart a brilliant gloss to the captured proceedings, especially on songs like “How’d I Know That Love Would Slip Away,” “Cause You Love Me, Baby” and “If You Don’t Believe.”
“Free,” though, is clearly the standout. It’s the kind of song that immediately draws you in. So much, perhaps, that you might so deeply immerse yourself in the aggregate effect of its sounds that you miss the import of the lyrics. That’s certainly what I did. The lines quoted above might leave the impression, one I more than hinted at, that this is a love song par excellence. I thought so until I started putting together a mix for someone I was into a couple of years later. After sequencing the mix—focused, as always, on sonic continuity—I realized I should take note of the lyrical arc of the collected songs. Once I really listened to “Free,” I realized it had no place on a come-hither CD.
You can suss out part of the reason why by meditating on that title. What does that word have to do with love or being in love? Is the relationship a function of love making people open up to feeling truly happy about who and where they are? Or, more darkly, is the connection that being in love can sometimes be an affair filled with restlessness and ambivalence?
The latter interpretation, I’m afraid, obtains in this case. Where all of the verses contain (like the above quotation) some of the most powerful evocations of how it feels to truly love someone, the choruses are something else altogether. The connectors between the two segments might parenthetically be the words “I can’t tell you how special and satisfying that is, but…” For what indeed emerges in the choruses are repeated expressions of a desire not to be encumbered: iterations that promise no future and leave little room for alternate interpretations. It’s a bracing song on a wonderful album. It should be part of your life, no matter whether you’re in, or out, of love…