#304: Just As I Am, Bill Withers
On this album cover, Bill Withers holds a lunch box looking open and cheerful. There’s something so sweet about his smile that you almost don’t notice the factory lights just behind him, and the fact that he’s carrying a heavy load.
RS quotes Withers saying that he’s “sick and tired of somebody saying ‘I love you’ with both arms up in the air like that,” but there are several love songs here. Perhaps you’re familiar with his most famous tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” where he quite literally finds himself breathless and heartsick. And “Sweet Wanomi” (Pass this article on to your closest friend named Wanomi!) is a lovely little tribute to holding your loved one close. Maybe he’s not saying it with both arms up in the air, but he’s saying it.
His sweetest songs, however, are not his romantic love songs, but his songs about his family. “Grandma’s Hands” is about the small, intimate ways that matriarchs protect us — it’s so intimate that Withers keeps time by simply tapping on a box. “I’m Her Daddy” is a tale of a man who discovers that he’s a baby daddy.
Withers’ musicianship also shines here on his debut. From his wild gospel cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to the memory-ridden vocals of “In My Heart,” you can tell that he just breathes melodies. Even on the objectively dirty “Moanin’ and Groanin’,” you can’t deny the sophisticated, layered harmonies.
But the most memorable songs here are the ones about struggle and joy, about success and failure and all the rungs of the ladder inbetween. Sometimes you just really have to hear a song about not caring what other people think, like “Everybody’s Talkin’.” “Do It Good” is a sly monologue about Withers’ key to success: doin’ everything good. How can you not take a message like that to heart? Those are the emotional highs, but the emotional lows are gut-punching. like the suicidally ecstatic “Harlem” and the just plainly suicidal “Better Off Dead.”
A gunshot, and the album ends. By the end of the record, his easy smile on the album cover looks darker than it did before.