Review Summary: "SORRY, I TRIED": A DIALECTICAL GLANCE AT SOME POP MUSIC
The elegant and seductive R&B music with which the Detroit family band DeBarge has come to be associated appears on their debut album, 1981’s The DeBarges
, in clearly attenuated form. One can conjure up a whole host of explanations for this relative immaturity: the band brushing up against the mandates of the legendary Motown record label (or the Gordy subsidiary to which they were signed); the absence of James DeBarge, who would join the band with the following year’s All This Love
and contribute three key tracks to 1983’s critically acclaimed In a Special Way
; the conjectural but entirely probable nervousness of a family band having their first go at writing, playing instruments, singing, and producing almost entirely by themselves. However one contextualizes its unevenness, The DeBarges
remains worth paying attention to as a document of the band’s burgeoning pop sensibility, and especially its early mastery of balladry.
Rightly considered the cream of the 1980s’ R&B crop, DeBarge’s pop ballads (“What’s Your Name” and "Share My World" here; the title track of All This Love
and In a Special Way
’s magisterial “Time Will Reveal”) nonetheless remain unscrutinized in their structure and content, mostly regarded as unusually skillful illustrations of teenaged infatuation and family camaraderie--nothing new for the pop and R&B charts. Consider the following my modest effort to rectify this: when I listen to DeBarge’s best songs, I receive a sense of pop music’s unique ability to engage or illustrate deep emotional upheaval through surface pleasure, and in writing this I want to figure out as exactly as possible what is going on when I feel gripped in this manner.
In DeBarge’s pop balladry, I detect a productive tension--a sort of dialectic in which opposing orientations in songwriting and production are forced to coexist and generate contradictory yet mutually reinforcing energies. The terms of this dialectic appear as something like the following. For our general thematic “thesis,” a basic motivating force behind the songwriting, we have an easily accessible and familiar sense of boyish attraction expressed individually, plus a conviviality between the band members working as a unit. Opening track “What’s Your Name” establishes this ground from the very start, as El DeBarge marvels over light keyboards and cymbal taps: “Wow! There she goes again! Is she following me or what" She suuuuure is pretty! Who is she" This time, I’m gonna ask her!” The forceful childishness of this introduction crops up again and again: you’re so gentle and so kind; you’re the queen of my heart; I’m saving up all my love for you. The gooey string arrangements which limn The DeBarges
--and which separate it from subsequent DeBarge releases--mostly serve to emphasize this affective strategy.
This tendency could be considered minor or trivial in the larger landscape of ‘80s R&B and pop music were it not for its being paired with a countervailing songwriting policy, the so-called “antithesis” in this dialectic of style. This counter-strategy, plainly stated, is DeBarge’s penchant for throwing structural disjunctions into the meat of their ballads (and, less frequently, their uptempo pop songs). Although the family writes very pretty music, they mostly seem to lack the pop songwriter’s concern for harmonizing the various constituent parts of their songs, and even chord progressions or melodies directly adjacent to each other do not blend in the way we expect them to. “What’s Your Name,” appropriately enough, is also a perfect example of this
predilection. Though sufficiently smoothed over to realize its function as a R&B slow jam with a childlike romanticism, the songwriting has a chunkiness typical of DeBarge’s style. Each discrete melody, from El DeBarge’s introductory “What's your name…” to the group’s harmonized “I’ve never seen a smile like yours before,” assumes a pleasing shape on its own but exists in confusing relation to that which surrounds it. This is a quality all of the strongest songs on The DeBarges
share: the band’s desire to craft arresting individual melodies persistently supersedes their interest in seamless manufacture of these melodies into songs proper.
These two apparently contradictory tendencies, thesis and antithesis--to wit, a wide-eyed emotional simplicity lying on the surface of the songs, and a repeated coup of structural disjuncture within--generate as their proper “synthesis,” and as the ultimate object of my adoration, an eminently pleasurable brand of pop music able to capture wholly the utter chaos of its subject: young love. Like all great pop, The DeBarges
, at its best, does not suffer for its proximity to genre tropes but is vitalized by them: limitless is the reserve of energy we as listeners draw from in having our horizon of expectations engaged and then subverted by DeBarge’s eccentric creative process. Yet it might be a bad idea to try to fit all
of DeBarge’s musical craft into an equation such as this. An unordered list of tendencies to be worked out along this theoretical spectrum seems as good a way to end as any:
: “Dialectic” or no, it’s easy (and not always totally unfair) to subject pop music as profound and impressive as DeBarge’s to a theoretical binary: the giving of pleasure and the withholding of pleasure; conventions and their momentary unsettling. Insofar as the ubiquitous background vocals of The DeBarges
fulfill a specific function, it would seem that it is to give us pleasure, to assure us of something rather than to ruffle our feathers. This, of course, is how background vocals usually work: an individual asserts something, and the group backs that assertion up. DeBarge seem aware of the emotional resonance of said individual and group all forming a literal, real-life family
together, and they draw on that resonance to assure the listener of the genuine nature of their feelings. (All the while, as I’ve asserted earlier, the lopsided structure of the band’s tunes feeds in a sort of compelling darkness to their emotional project.)
: This is where things get interesting when you regard The DeBarges
in the context of the rest of the band’s discography. El DeBarge, who slid into the role of de facto
leader of the group as their time went on, dominates All This Love
and subsequent releases vocally. Here, however, all the family members get their turn, most gratingly on the Randy-led “Saving Up (All My Love),” one of two songs on the album not written by the DeBarges themselves. Here the seams of the DeBarges’ project show a little, as El and Bunny offer, quite clearly, the most compelling designs for the group’s sound on tracks like “Share My World” and “You’re So Gentle, So Kind”. These songs come off as blueprints for future masterpieces like “Time Will Reveal”; songs like “Saving Up (All My Love)” and the interplay-heavy “Hesitated” more as interesting kinks to be worked out. Which brings us to…
Instrumentation and production
: The DeBarges
has easily the most “organic” production of all their releases, and the in-studio recording of the rhythm section is especially notable: crackling slap bass, warm keys, and snug drums. As occasionally pleasing as this setup is, it too effects a level of sonic intimacy which was to be smoothed out in later releases, In a Special Way
especially. (In conceptualizing the difference in production between those two albums, one can perhaps think of Off the Wall
, both of which, not coincidentally, set the stage for DeBarge’s subsequent releases.) Even as the complexity of DeBarge’s songcraft reached its peak on their third album, the denser weave of digital tones served to take off some of the edge. That sort of built-in distance to the song material is not an element of The DeBarges
, where the closeness of the production and the animated instrumentation throws every emotional idea to the fore of the listener’s headspace, for better or worse.
: Not every song on The DeBarges
is a ballad; in fact, the album is split pretty evenly down the middle, between knotty ballads and “groove” tracks which are tied more to rhythmic motifs than to DeBarge’s telltale harmonic showboating or individual emoting. Among the songs that fall on the latter side, it’s hard to make much of the aforementioned “Saving Up (All My Love)” and the closing “Strange Romance” in the context of DeBarge’s oeuvre--neither song is written by them, a status shared only by “Can’t Stop” among their next two albums. “Hesitated” is an interesting case. The album’s simplest song, but it nonetheless reveals the group’s oddball sense of structuring melodic material into something we might call a “song”. The song is totally bifurcated; once we leave the call-and-response of the first half (“Do you mean what you say" Do you say what you mean"”), we never look back. “Dance the Night Away,” not an entirely successful track, is something in the middle: bongo-heavy and danceable, the chorus nonetheless seems wholly autonomous from the verses and bridge in a manner associable with DeBarge’s songwriting practice and not much else in the genre.
Thanks for reading!