Funny, the day I was scheduled to write about Bill Withers’ ‘Justments, Chris Brown got into a fight with Drake over Rihanna. When Brown beat Rihanna, I wrote about his situation with a reference to Withers’ relationship with Denise Nicholas. Of course, Brown has managed to resurrect his career, but the point I made then still has some credence. It’s a lot easier to get past this stuff if you’re an “artist.” That’s not posed as right or wrong. Just what it is.
‘Justments pretty clearly seems to be about coping with the aftermath of Withers and Nicholas’ short marriage. They were married in 1973 and divorced in ‘74, the year the LP was released. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea what happened. Just know they were divorced by the end of the following calendar year, and it doesn’t sound like it was too peaceful.
‘Justments is the album people swear Here, My Dear is. Without wallowing in its own pity, like Marvin did for track after track after track, Withers explores the highs and lows of losing love with his trademark wisdom and sincerity. Withers always had a way of boiling things to such beautifully simple forms. He was similar to Al Green in this way, except he wasn’t smooth about it. He was direct, and always sounded like his face matched his words. He wasn’t hiding anything. He couldn’t hide it if he wanted to.
And, most interestingly — there’s no song on ‘Justments that leaves you feeling like Bill was making a case for himself. Maybe he was right sometimes, maybe he was wrong, and maybe he was defensive. But where Marvin was reliving it all, Withers seemed to sincerely be dealing with it.
Check this from the album cover, via the almighty Wiki.
Life like most precious gifts gives us the responsibility of upkeep. We are given the responsibility of arranging our own spaces to best benefit our survival. We have the choice of believing or not believing in things like God, friendship, marriage, love, lust or any number of simple but complicated things. We will make some mistakes both in judgement and in fact. We will help some situations and hurt some situations. We will help some people and hurt some people and be left to live with it either way. We must then make some adjustments, or as the old people back home would call them, + ‘JUSTMENTS.
Yeah, Here, My Dear it ain’t. This is the breakup album of all breakup albums, one that manages to step outside the protagonist without leaving his experience. It’s about her as much as it is about him, and even at his depths he can see that.
Even more telling? He can tell that it’s about us, too.
The first track on ‘Justments is called “You.” It’s five minutes and 15 seconds. It has no chorus, and fades out while Withers is still singing. Think about what that: for five straight minutes, he talks about her. And he’s talking about himself, and he’s talking about them, and he’s talking about everything. It wallows in self-pity until it rages against taking too much blame. It alleges when it realizes everybody’s gotta be wrong. You can hear his country insecurity and he describes a woman with tastes and interests more haute than his own. Those are probably tastes and interests that attracted him, the idea that a woman like her would like a country boy like him, and interests that drove an obvious wedge between them.
Of course, there are no references to violence. There’s nothing particular to what we’ve heard about Withers and Nicholas (something Withers has maintained to this day, making he and Bobby Womack the kings of keeping secrets). But damned if you don’t know exactly the sort of situation there. It’s sung by a man so in touch with his emotions that he realizes that he can’t handle it all, but too resentful and prideful to allow anyone to rail against him…the same way he’s railing about her.
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And he never stops to breathe. It is the definitive breakup song. Not no “Cry Me A River,” parting shot bullshit. I mean, every single thing you feel at the end. After it. When it’s done and no one’s said it. The moments of clarity drowned out by the best and worst of each parties’ humanity.
And hey…that’s five minutes in.
‘Justments is that record and, somehow manages to be that all the way through.
“The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” is the fear most rational people have going into these things — chances are your heart’s gonna run you, not vice versa.
Well now you think of love as sitting on a mountain
Think of it as being a great big rock
Won’t you think before you started to roll it down
Because once you start it, you can’t make it stop
“Stories” speaks to the tricky equilibrium of finding someone who wants to hear your story…whose story you want to hear yourself. How you get to heaven, how you’ve been through hell. Sometimes you need to hear the same as yours, sometimes the opposite. But nobody in this world gives a damn about your story…except the person who des. Good luck finding that.
“Green Grass” may as well be a book of the Bible in my house, where my daddy’s quoted it forever.
The green grass on the other side
is just an illusion
we all have our own confusions.
“Ruby Lee” is the reach for someone, anyone, which always sends folks back through the past before finding a stranger (bad idea, yeah). “Heartbreak Road” is getting over it all, while acknowledging there’s no way to figure this out without getting your heart broken a few times. “Can We Pretend,” which credits Nicholas as songwriter, is the silly attempt to act like nothing ever happened, which always sounds like such a good idea. “Make A Smile For Me” is trying just one more time, asking for something small…which also never really works.
I mean, did he miss anything?
This is the cycle, from the most personal to ingenious general observations that, clearly, Withers thought would work better for others than himself. There’s the ignorance of good sense at the expense of that big ol’ rock you can’t get to stop rolling when you want it to. I mean, he got it all. And, somehow, he managed to do so without sounding pathetic. That’s saying a lot, seeing how a suicidal gunshot closes out Just As I Am.
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See, the probaly with breakup albums, usually, is they’re sung by people acting like they’re still in fuckin high school. You know, the “it’s the end of the world” contingent, totally unable to see beyond their own pain or whatever it is. Breaking up, as an adult, has more of an awww-shucks quality to it. We’ve all stepped away from people we loved just because it had to be done, been dropped for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with love, and/or been treated outright badly by people we’d give the world to. Things just happen to end.
The frustrating part, at least for me, isn’t the fact that someone may not want me or however it goes. No, the tricky thing is how little that actually matters. You can try to want and wish something into working, but that won’t make the divorce lawyer any cheaper. Some things work, and some things don’t, but neither has but so much to do with how people feel about each other. That’s not what most think about when they get that swift kick to the gut, but it’s still the truth of it all. We’re all just rolling the dice on something that might work, get invested — against the odds and logic — in the idea that we’ve found something…knowing damn well that’s unlikely.
And we do it again. Partially because we have to. Partially because there’s a lot of fun in it. Hey, people drink every weekend knowing the hangover is coming. They play it the same with their hearts. We humans…we’re interesting like that.
It’s hard to capture the optimism and cynicism of all of that in one place. That’s what Withers got on ‘Justments, like no one else I’ve heard.