Listen to this track from singer-songwriter, pianist, and mistress of orchestral pop with gospel overtones Laura Nyro. It’s “Eli’s Coming”, a key track on her 1968 Eli and the Thirteenth Confession album, her second album, and many say her best. Never has a love song sounded so ominous, while also being so lushly constructed and arranged.
Laura Nyro’s ability to put across music that was a successful fusion of tin pan alley, confessional singer-songwriter fare, gospel music, and showtune panache is unparalleled. This was a fusion that came through various exposures to all of these strains of music and more, while having graduated from High School of Music and Art in Manhatten, and playing clubs while still a teen.
She was a singular figure in music at the time of this release, anticpating the confessional style, but still being a sophisticated enough songwriter and arranger to be able to construct little movies that had a life of their own apart from their creator. This is just as well, since many of her well-known songs are well known because they were performed by others including Blood Sweat and Tears (“And When I Die”), Three Dog Night (who covered this song), Barbra Striesand (“Stoney End”), and the Fifth Dimension (“Sweet Blindness”), just to name a few.
This song just doesn’t fool around, challenging the rules of pop music immediacy by meeting the requirement of being accessible while also being appealingly unpredictable at the same time. I love the changes in tempo, for instance. This aspect is an important innovation to pop writing that Nyro helped to make available to her peers, and those over whom she has musical influence, such as Jenny Lewis, Ricky Lee Jones, and Elton John, who’s “Burn Down The Mission” was a Nyro-influenced gem in his own catalogue early on.
Also, Nyro’s voice on this is so connected to the material. It sounds to me as more than just a vocal performance; it’s an acting performance. We believe in this song because it’s written and arranged well, but also because it’s sung by someone who believes it too, complete with multitracked Lauras that seem to be filling not so much the role of backup singers as they do a sort of broadway style Greek chorus.
That’s what really stands out for me with this tune; just how cinematic it is, how well paced it is. It really is like a little movie, where perhaps the details of the action are less important than its emotional core. And this is the strength of this tune, and in Nyro’s music overall. It is a pop song without following the rules of pop. It is not bound by verse-chorus-verse. It takes it’s time, it builds, comes to a climax, and then tapers off into a denoument, and a fade to black. In this, it’s a pretty revolutionary example of how pop writing could still be complex and lush, yet not sound as though it’s self-indulgent on the part of its writer.
Maybe it’s this sense of drama, this cinematic quality to her music which attracted so many artists of such differing musical styles to take on her material and have such success with it.
For more information about Laura Nyro, check out this Laura Nyro biography.