I wrote in my piece on Luciano Pavarotti and Aretha Franklin’s performances of “Nessun dorma” that the best-written songs transcend genre. I forgot to note that it takes a specifically gifted type of artist to achieve that transcendence. We toss the word around carelessly these days, but “genius” certainly applies here. For Pavarotti and Franklin, their decades of excellence made their brilliant interpretations somewhat inevitable.
In 1997, we were still getting to know R&B singer Maxwell. The year before, he released his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Critics lauded the project as a soulful counterpoint to the hip-hop-driven R&B of the moment. (Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite would later be credited for bringing neo soul into the mainstream, with D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm.) The album was also a commercial success, going double platinum with the help of “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).”
MTV clearly sensed the changing tide. The network tapped Maxwell to perform for its stripped-down concert series MTV Unplugged. It was a stunning show of confidence: established acts like Nirvana, Mariah Carey, and Eric Clapton did MTV Unplugged, with performances that would become career highlights. Maxwell, on the other hand, had just one album under his belt.
If MTV was taking a risk on Maxwell, then he seemed determined to meet the moment. Alongside tracks from his debut album, he prepared two covers: “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails and “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush. Both were left-field choices, but especially Bush’s song. She originally wrote “This Woman’s Work” for the 1988 film She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon. (She later included it on her 1989 album The Sensual World.) The haunting ballad explores the fear and regret that Bacon’s character feels as he waits for news about his wife and their unborn child. Given Bush’s low profile in the U.S. (her biggest hit is the brilliant “Running Up That Hill“) and the song’s relative obscurity (it had been featured in a Party of Five episode), “This Woman’s Work” probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for a cover.
That is why Maxwell’s choice is so special. Taking on the queen of art pop? A bold move, but how does he go about it? To start, he changes its pace. Bush’s version builds to a heightened and cathartic climax, but Maxwell keeps his slow and steady. The song opens with the gentle pluckings of a harp and Maxwell’s vocalizations, airy but undeniably rich and soulful. You imagine that Maxwell will soon dip into his lower registers, but he doesn’t. Piano and strings join in, but Maxwell’s falsetto, front and center, never falters.
Under his guidance, “This Woman’s Work” transforms into something far more intimate than Bush might’ve imagined. When Maxwell sings “give me these moments,” you can feel the quiet agony behind the words, and his hope that he will get them back. His interpretation is less passive reflection and more proactive plea, as if he were on his knees begging for a far-off miracle.
That’s a lot of emotion for one voice to carry, and yet Maxwell’s lithe instrument does so with ease. He plays around with the limits of his range, and toys with the melody and lyrics a bit. However, his voice never cracks, nor does it distract from the depth of emotion at the song’s core. If anything, it adds more texture, revealing threads of romance and passion that converse well with the fear and regret. None of that would be possible without Maxwell and that soul-stirring falsetto of his.
Maxwell’s MTV Unplugged performance of “This Woman’s Work” confirmed what MTV executives had bet on: Maxwell was the future. More than that, it announced the arrival of an R&B genius, with an intuition and respect for music that would push his genre further than it had gone before. His experiments didn’t always yield success. His sophomore album Embrya wasn’t well-received upon its release, and the studio version of “This Woman’s Work” (for 2001’s Now) fails to recapture the live version’s magic. You can easily forgive mistakes when an artist is so innately gifted as Maxwell is. Even if he accomplished nothing else, his performance of “This Woman’s Work” would be remembered as one of the greatest live performances to ever air on MTV Unplugged.
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