Electric Light Orchestra: Sweet Talkin’ Woman
eff Lynne did rather more than write Beatles-esque melodies and graft on layer after layer of meticulously produced tracks until the finished product gleamed. For starters, in song structure, ELO's best songs never adhered to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge school of the 1960s. Lynne's is a world of pre-choruses and alternative takes on the same melodic lines, and ornate embellishments that were very much a product of their time. You could say their irreducibly complex arrangements were symbolic of, or a relief from, the worst excesses of the 70s depending on your viewpoint. Yet much of the criticism they faced did little more than attempt to break them down to their base components and chip away at them in a disassembled state, which seems to be missing the point entirely.
"Sweet Talkin' Woman" spent four weeks in the top 10 in 1978 and it represents, in an easily digestible form, everything that was great about ELO. Their inventiveness, their bloody-minded expansive maximalist tendencies, and most of all, their expertise in the construction of a tune that sticks. Far from being throwbacks, their (at-the-time) bold, futuristic pop was rooted very much in its own time and place. Sometimes that time was the 1980s, even before the calendar had caught up.
I remain utterly convinced that the opening salvo basically invented ABC's string swoons, before showing the trick's very limits with its distorted, alien vocal intro: "Where... did you go?" But stuff alien nonsense, there was an oddly-rhythmed human heart beating below the surface, and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” captures both sides beautifully.
If all ELO was a mixture of normal and falsetto parts, people would remember them as a slightly uglier Bee Gees, but a big part of the alchemy of "Sweet Talkin' Woman" is in the amazing vocal treatments and arrangements. High-pitched echoing of key words, deep-throated aahs throughout the later verse; there's a lot going on here. It’s a mix of the politely and believably felt, and the melodrama, the comedy, the theatrics.
There are strings too; they shape the flow of the song, each movement sounding almost like a tempo change. The strings draw shades around the lines that make the melodies stand out. And that chorus? Still a winner over just a drum and a lick of guitar during its repetitions at the end—in fact, it may just be one of my favourite individual moments of 70s pop.
If the urgency and varying pitch of the vocals oscillates in time to the lyrics, the meshing between those and the actual music is absolutely virtuosic; particularly the fluttering heartbeat strings over the chorus, which turn into ominous swells over the verses and breaks into a canter over the pre-chorus.
The mark of a fantastic pre-chorus is that you don’t realise that it’s a pre-chorus the first time you hear it until the actual real chorus comes in. The narrative of a pop song is by necessity often stylised and stilted to fit its form, but the interplay between the sugar rush of the pre-chorus (“Gotta get back to you”) and the cautious but still smitten chorus (“Slow down, sweet talkin’ woman”) is nigh-on perfect.
And it works because crucially, it sounds like being smitten; there’s an admission that the narrator can do no more than go back to her despite his protestations. Attraction or attachment or dependence might be a serious thing, but it makes one whimsical, light-headed, and prone to flights of fancy. Unfamiliar, yet familiar. Otherworldly, yet terrestrial. Anticipatory, yet cautious. A hands-aloft dance belter has a hard time showing both sides. As does a ballad. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” does this within the framework of a fantastic four-minute pop song crammed with fantastic individual sonic moments.
Few better giddy pleasures exist past the helium lamentations of “She’s gone so long. Where could she be?” delivered with the utmost seriousness in the musical equivalent of a silly voice. Three-quarters of people hearing it might think it’s funny. Perhaps a quarter think it’s serious. To me, it’s both, helping it to make it one of the most beautiful—even if nobody realises it—pop songs of its time.
By: Edward Oculicz
Published on: 2005-10-26