By Scott Puckett (originally printed in Finley Breeze)
What exactly the fuck is soul? Is it some ineffable quality music possesses which is an attribute ascribed by dint of certain definable characteristics, i.e. horns, deep basslines and the like, evidenced by labels like Stax and Motown, or is it something deeper than the superficial qualities which are generally used to categorize it and file it in record stores, something so fundamentally intertwined with music that any attempt to separate one from the other would result in the death of both?
That's a question for philosophers to tackle, because the operating definition of soul I will use in this piece is as follows: soul is passion for music and passionate music, passion for the subject of a given song, that discernible vitality, energy and emotion a musician brings to a work and conveys to the audience through his / her words / music. It is a spirit of sorts, albeit an undefinable one. As Paul Williams once wrote, "You gotta have soul, baby, which just means it's gotta be you you're passing on, people receiving parts of people, living matter, animate stuff. The medium and the messages it contains are just so much nothing, trees falling in the forest with no one to hear, unless there is human life on both ends of the line, sending, receiving, transferring bits of human consciousness from one soul to another."
This is seems to be as useful a means of coming to grips with Guided by Voices' "Liar's Tale" as any. While it may seem odd to consider this song to be a representative of soul music, there are several commonalities it shares with soul.
First and foremost, from the earliest forms of soul music (for sake of argument let's set a rough date somewhere in the mid-1950s with various a cappella vocal groups laying the groundwork for Berry Gordy's later experiments) to the most contemporary, soul music has commonly addressed blue (which is to say depressing or themes found in the blues) topics - breaking up is hard to do and it seems like everyone from the Platters to the Four Tops to All 4 One and Boyz II Men knows that. If soul musicians were carpenters, it seems they would build a relationship from scratch with the partner of their choice, or so they swear. It seems the most common topic found in soul music is, then, love. It infuses each song, torments the vocalist as they attempt to exorcise their visions and dreams of their beloved, search for a new love, lament the loss of an old love, or at the very least spit out those words which are so often so hard to say - I love you, I need you, I want you, but you're not here, you're off with someone else ... maybe Sam Cooke put it best when he sang "Another Saturday night / And I ain't got nobody." That seems to sum up soul music fairly well.
So why, then, is "Liar's Tale," a song created by some brilliant if eccentric indie-pop-rockers from Ohio, an excellent representation of soul music? First and foremost, GbV vocalist Robert Pollard embodies everything a good soul vocalist should. He expresses his emotions through words and other, less obvious means of communicating meaning - pitch, tone, crooning pure sound which fits into the context of the song but carries no discernible meaning, only an emotional effect. Admittedly, "Liar's Tale" is anything but a standard soul song. The reverbed guitars, the witty, self-referential lyrics which comment on the title, the form the song takes and other elements of the tune - these contribute to separating it from soul.
However, at a deeper level, Pollard's soaring vocals and gospel inflections ensure this song carries more impact than the run-of-the-mill wise-ass pop band writing about smoking pot. For starters, Pollard attempts to tell a story in this song, a story of love and loss and longing, which is thematically similar to soul music which also tries to tell a story, witnessed by "Macarthur Park," "Tracks of my Tears," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay." As Pollard sings in the first verse, "Let me tell you a story / The truth is based on fact / Long ago, in the morning / She left, did not come back." The narrator of the song, who may or may not be Pollard, expresses how little he cares at the end of each verse, yet continues his tale, thus proving himself a liar. With each passing verse, it becomes more readily apparent exactly how deeply the narrator loved the individual he is singing about. Cathartic yelps, riffs taken from what sound like Delta Blues songs and the narrator's desire to "Tell you a story / About the way she was" all point to one simple thing: The narrator is the liar, but, much like the narrators in other soul songs, is only lying in an effort to protect himself from being further hurt. In other words, the facade of apathy thrown up by the narrator is nothing more than a wall trying to block out pain and the anguish which accompanies someone leaving.
It is also true that the form of the song, the actual music behind Pollard's words, has little in common with more traditional forms of soul music - the lush orchestration provided for the Supremes, Phil Spector's legendary Wall of Sound. Instead, this song sounds as if it's being transmitted, to use Williams' word, to the listener via a distant AM radio station somewhere across the desert in the middle of the night. The sound, while clear, is just distorted enough that it sounds as if it's coming from some faraway, exotic locale where all the lonely people go to nurse their wounds in commiseration and empathy.
While on a superficial level, "Liar's Tale" has very little to do with the Temptations, Otis Redding and other musicians treading the same ground, on the most important level - giving part of the singer to the listener and receiving that part - it is nothing less than the most pure form of soul which was ever created.