Heartbreak and hope. Two of the most prominent and universal human emotions entwined in the annals of music history. From the heartbreak of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine to the hope of You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers, a myriad of songs cover such extremes.
This song by Irma Thomas is a favourite of mine because within a mere two minutes and twenty two seconds, it manages to combine both in perfect harmony. Light and shade. Warmth and cold. Highs and lows. I find that such contrasts are a very effective tool used in music because they reflect a very human element. Not everything is as cut and dry as ‘being happy’ or ‘being sad’. Most of the time we are both simultaneously.
My discovery of this song is part of a long, ongoing journey. I love soul music. I grew up listening to my father’s Temptations albums and Motown compilations during car journeys. Ben E King and the Drifters were never too far away from the stereo either. Looking back, musically this stood me in good stead for the future.
As I became older and more serious about music, soul was never far away. I learnt that one great thing about it is that there’s is always something new to dig deep into and discover. Some obscure rarity waiting to be found. Soul branches off into funk, jazz and hip hop. All avenues I have wandered down and explored. I continue to do so.
The Hurt’s All Gone is not a particularly rare and obscure track but then again it didn’t exactly shift millions of units on its release. I was introduced to this track a few years back by a longtime friend of mine and since then I’d say it’s probably the most-played soul song in my collection.
The ominous, reverb drenched opening chords instantly set the scene. If an intro ever exuded the musical equivalent of loneliness, this is it. A minor key motif that doesn’t stray to another chord. Scratching guitar stabs underpin a wandering, rolling, jazz-tinged piano riff that conveys the sense of ennui our heroine is feeling – as if she is staring from the window, head resting in one hand while the other taps out rhythms on the windowpane.
And then she begins to sing. Thomas has an unbelievable voice, so powerful and yet still restrained. Thomas’ heartbreak-coated vocals in the verses drift to a harmony-assisted bridge where the sense of her pain builds more and more, until the twist in the story suckerpunches you – the absent object of her affection walks right in and “everything’s alright”.
The glorious switch to a major key in the chorus chorus confirms that now, “the hurt’s all gone”. Horns and harmonies are added and hope prevails. In a split second the whole mood of the piece is flipped on it’s head… albeit fleetingly.
We then learn how Thomas is treated badly by her man – but this dissolves into inconsequence whenever they are united again. The falling middle section confirms that we’re dealing with a relationship from the treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen school of thought but again, Thomas remains defiant in hope.
There is at once a complexity and a simplicity to the song – the complex, contrasting emotions that inform the lyric complement (rather than juxtapose with) the simple chord progressions beneath. Complexity and simplicity. Light and shade. Those contrasts again.
It’s a phenomenal song by an underrated artist. It’s a shame that Irma Thomas’ talent hasn’t led to her becoming a household name but I kind of like it this way. It makes the hope and the heartbreak even more believable. As a listener, it sounds like Thomas has lived this song. Many of us will have lived this song too.