B-side of The Tracks Of My Tears
B-side of The Tracks Of My Tears
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
For Motown, the summer of 1965 was the summer of Holland-Dozier-Holland; the trio were riding high, the Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) replacing the the Supremes’ Back In My Arms Again as the number one record in America. But records like A Fork In The Road offer further proof, not that any were needed, that Smokey Robinson remained Motown’s most beguiling and most brilliant songwriter. There’s alchemy at work here, but alchemy of a very Smokey kind, something personal to him; although there are strong echoes of the Miracles’ previous (beautiful) single, Ooo Baby Baby, A Fork In The Road is actually more of a refinement of the early Miracles’ “dreamscape” songs like You Can Depend On Me and I Can’t Believe, all fuzz and high voices and blissed-out cloud-blankets, as interpreted by Smokey, Claudette and the boys with five extra years’ worth of growing-up and hindsight.
Unlike those early efforts, which still sound directionless to these ears, A Fork In The Road is gorgeous; moreover, as of 1965, it’s the sort of song that Smokey – and only Smokey – can now weave into gold.
I always like the sound of the Miracles when Claudette – who didn’t travel with the group for live shows, and who’s not pictured on the sleeve of any Miracles album after 1963 – is pushed right to the front in the mix; as I’ve said before, it’s like a holdover from the doo-wop days, as though somewhere it’s still 1956, will always be 1956. That’s as true here as anywhere, as Smokey’s voice journeys even higher and softer than usual, his wounded falsetto doing the work of a female soprano, the overall effect strange and dreamlike. But there’s a darker twist to the lyrics which go further than Smokey might ever have dared back in the early days.
On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough concept – take a simple lyrical conceit, drape it in a dreamy, cloudy atmosphere (to coin a phrase, this sounds smoky), confuse the listener’s senses and carry them away as hints of strange and wonderful things happen in the distant corners of the mind, like fireworks in a thick fog. This is why so many people are tempted to try it, and why so many people get it badly wrong, because for this to work, the atmospherics aren’t enough. You have to make sure – and here’s another major difference between this and the likes of I Can’t Believe – make sure you find a tune from somewhere that didn’t previously exist. When you do that, as Smokey does here – I’ve heard this chorus two dozen times now and it still takes me by surprise when Smokey leaps the stave to grab a completely unexpected note (“I know I may be just a stranger / Lovers, LET ME warn you there’s a danger…”) – only then can you drench the rest of the record in the trappings of some Twentieth Century doo-wop lullaby.
The lyrics are astonishing; Smokey had submitted his fair share of advice songs in the past, but this one has a darker context, the narrator advising us not to make the same mistakes he did. (Danger, heartbreak dead ahead, as another Motown writer put it.) Despite the gliding beauty of the record, this is no easy ride, and fair warning is given right from the start, as the narrator – seemingly addressing nobody in particular (the second-person stuff comes later in the song) – mutters to himself:
Seems like love should be easier to bear
But it’s such a heavy load
Worldwide traveller, you ain’t been nowhere
‘Til you’ve travelled down love’s road…
“Easier to bear”? “Heavy load”? This is a very different kind of relationship to the one on the A-side, the all-or-nothing The Tracks Of My Tears; here, for this narrator, love (or rather, the duty of trying to keep a relationship alive) seems to be a kind of masochistic punishment. In fact, the moral of the song is “don’t mess up a good thing”, don’t sabotage your happiness for the sake of some minor disagreement – the titular fork in the road – but the way Smokey sings it, full of tears and with the other Miracles forming a mournful Greek chorus behind him, the whole thing takes on mythical properties, the narrator as a spirit guide for lovers everywhere, condemned to roam the earth warning others to heed his fate.
It’s light-hearted stuff alright.
But this is Smokey Robinson, and these are the Miracles, and they can get away with it, first making something heavy and corporeal out of the tears and mist and rain, and then sugar-coating it so the whole thing goes down smooth again. Smokey is often talked about in terms of his being a poet, but I’ve always thought of him more purely as an artist, in every sense, and A Fork In The Road is a prime example of that. Sumptuous in its beauty, quietly devastating in its lyrics… I don’t know how he’s doing this.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“The Tracks Of My Tears”
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