It’s July, and I’m in Florida, where, to quote my uncle Larry, the air is so fucking wet that you won’t notice if you towel off after stepping out of the shower. I’m visiting my grandparents, but really, I wander off alone whenever I can; I spend hours wandering the streets of their town.
I read William Diehl’s Hooligans, a pulpy murder mystery whose protagonist is haunted by an impossible love. I watch the sun setting on the beach, but I don’t focus on the sun; instead, my eyes are on the lightning streaking over the horizon. I hope for rain. I want to stand in it. No; I want it to wash me away.
I want to be gone, in the way that only being 16 and heartbroken can make you want to be gone. I’m not crying, but I feel like I should be. Like it might break some emotional dam somewhere, and clear out this misery in one huge, fluid rush.
And I listen, again and again and again, to a song that was fucking co-written by Diane Warren.
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There are some albums that stick with you for artistic reasons, and there are some that you hold onto for emotional reasons. The best albums fall under both categories, and that’s one of a hundred reasons why Michael McDonald’s Take It to Heart shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a “best” album. It was released during a fallow period for McDonald — he hadn’t released an album in five years, and he resorted to collaborating with an army of co-writers and producers just to get it done. As a result, it’s woefully, woefully uneven, and I eyed it distrustfully even as a 16-year-old; though I was already a McD fan, I’d come to his music through the soulful rock sides he cut with the Doobie Brothers (early favorite: “Here to Love You”), and if there was one thing I knew, it was that I didn’t want to get anywhere near anything that sounded like “Sweet Freedom” or “On My Own.”
It wasn’t necessarily that anything about Take It to Heart’s title track spoke to my situation with this particular girl — if there was a McD song that did that, it was “What a Fool Believes,” although I wouldn’t know it until years later, when I came from somewhere back in her long ago and she mustered a smile — but there was just…something…about it. Lyrically, it’s a plea delivered at the beginning of a relationship, not after it’s crumbled to dust. Musically, though, it’s another story.
From the first time I listened to it, “Take It to Heart” sounded like what I was feeling at the time. McDonald’s vocals were aching and mournful in that signature McD way. The billowing clouds of synths — co-programmed by John fucking Tesh! — sounded humid, somehow. The vocals of Sir Harry Bowens, Sweet Pea Atkinson, and David Lasley fit, for the first of many times, into the hole in my heart. When I think of the summer of 1990, it’s this song I hear.
Given all that, did it matter that vast swaths of the rest of the album ranged from somewhat disappointing to frankly awful? Did it matter that McDonald was clearly running on fumes, or that even when he threatened to strike a spark, as on “Searchin’ for Understanding,” he’d send his melodies into frustratingly unexpected detours? Did it matter, God help me, that the album actually contained the lyric — repeated several times, mind you — “Homeboy wants to rule the hot town”?
It did not. Maybe the album’s many shortcomings matter to me now, as a 36-year-old who occasionally thinks about that time, worrying over those feelings like a lost tooth. Then again, maybe they don’t. And maybe now, like then, one song is enough.