Dame Shirley Bassey – After the Rain
Sometimes there really is no substitute for experience. I love Joni Mitchell’s original version of Both Sides Now from 1969 – but her 2000 version revealed that it’s very much a song for an older person. Younger Joni sounds like she hasn’t experienced quite enough yet for the lyrics to be true. Older Joni – the voice deeper, the pace much slower, sounds like she’s lived through every moment and boy, was it tiring. It’s quite upsetting really, but somehow I find it very comforting – the idea that you can hang around for decades and still not have any answers. Takes the pressure off.
Of course experience is something that Dame Shirley Bassey has buckets of, but until 2009 I only ever considered her in terms of being the Living Embodiment of Showbusiness. I couldn’t help myself – I would think of her and the word “belter” would immediately lodge itself in my brain. It’s a term she hates, but so embedded was my vision of her trademark Goldfinger style of delivery that until 2009 I don’t think I ever considered that beneath the bombast was someone who could deliver an understated, sensitive performance better than…well, just about anyone else. Her career seemed, to me, to be a collection of moments – huge, significant and amazing moments – but fairly uniquely for a singer, she didn’t seem to be have an essential album anywhere in her catalogue. The Performance changed all that and proved beyond any doubt that it’s possible to hit your peak fifty years into your career. And After the Rain may just be her greatest ever song.
I could pick any number of favourites from this album – from the Pet Shop Boys collaboration The Performance of My Life to the holy-crap-who-knew-this-would-work Manic Street Preachers team-up The Girl From Tiger Bay, or the exquisite Rufus Wainwright number Apartment and KT Tunstall’s deliciously wicked Nice Men. The whole album was unified by David Arnold’s production, which treated its leading lady perfectly – nodding to her past, glamour never far away – but always pushing her to new places. But the one that made me rethink my entire Bassey view was Richard Hawley’s contribution, After the Rain.
In some ways it reminds me of ABBA’s Happy New Year, in that it’s very much a “no more champagne and the fireworks are through” sort of song. This is Shirley, not Dame Shirley, taking off her makeup after another gala performance. Alone, quiet and wondering what all those years of experience have added up to. “After the rains have gone / Something inside me cries / What’s behind that door / This girl just can’t take it anymore”. This is a song only someone who’s lived, who’s seen both sides, can really deliver, and I’m so glad Shirley got to be the one. She performs it so softly, so wisely and without any of those showstopping notes you might normally expect. It’s heartbreaking – but not hopeless. There’s always something behind that door.
Accompanied by a rolling and exquisitely gentle piano refrain, just a few strings and percussion softly brushing back and forth, it’s become my most played Shirley Bassey track on iTunes by quite some distance. Diamonds might be forever, but this – for me, is the performance of her life.
Who could sing this today and have a hit? As far as I’m concerned this is now her signature song and as such, no-one else should touch it.