Request Line: “Is This Love?”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 25, 2010
Reader Kevin Writes:
Hey, longtime reader here. Following up a reference in a previous “Request Line”, how about four songs of the same name:
Bob Marley “Is This Love”
Whitesnake “Is This Love”
Survivor “Is This Love”
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! “Is This Love?”
Few things I love more than comparing random songs that happen to have the same title, Kevin. By all means.
Few artists are as hard for critics to talk about as Bob Marley. That’s because for a guy who probably should inspire the same kind of reflexive reverence as Bob Dylan or Joe Strummer, Marley comes with the weightiest of musical-discourse albatrosses around his neck: The Fratboy Seal of Approval. In just the three decades or so since his death, Marley’s legacy has been reduced in American culture from that of a political figurehead, musical innovator and cultural ambassador to a poster in a head shop and a copy of Legend in the CD binder of your high-school classmate with the tie-dyed t-shirts and the ratty hair. (The Onion brilliantly summed up this phenomenon about a half-decade ago with their classic “Bob Marley Rises From Grave to Free Frat Boys From Bonds of Oppresson” article–sample Bob quote: “Professor, he flunk you all the time. Policeman, he ticket you for the noise. Board of Regents, they make so many rule, try to keep the fraternity music down.”) It’s not Marley’s fault, and really, it isn’t even the fratboys’ fault–it’s not their fault that Marley’s rebel rock and songs of freedom happen to sound very, very good at Saturday morning wake-and-bakes. But it can make it distressingly difficult to talk seriously about a song like “Get Up, Stand Up,” when in the back of our mind will always be an image of a twenty-year-old bearded and beaded white male, cup of beer in one hand, pointing to nowhere in particular with the other one, chanting “Don’t geev up da fiiiight!” (I understand the appeal–I did it myself when I saw the sans-Marley Wailers open for 311 in concert once. It’s fun.)
Shame, because the songs that have endured are almost all quite excellent. Of the songs that everyone knows off Legend, the only ones that I don’t really like to listen to are “Buffalo Soldier” (one too many “Oy Yo Yo!” breaks) and “One Love” (too dippy by any standards, and completely ruined by those “Come to Jamaica and…feeeeel alllll-riiight!!” commercials). “Waiting in Vain” is probably my favorite, and “Is This Love?” is probably close behind that. Like a couple of the other songs I’m going to discuss with this title, the key with this one is the simplicity and directness, as Marley outlays a surprisingly pragmatic vision of his life with his beloved, sharing a shelter in his single bed and eating the bread provided by Jah. It’s not exactly Smokey Robinson promising to build you a castle with a tower so high it reaches the moon, but with Bob’s earnest pleas, it comes off more as intimate and romantic than downright desperate. My favorite line, though, is in the song’s bridge: “I am willing and able / So I lay my cards on your table.” Not too many declarations of love to be found in pop music much more straightforward than that.
Thing’s a gem musically and structurally too, of course. I always loved in Bob Marley songs how much emphasis he would put on every single syllable in his choruses, putting enough space in between each to really allow them to resonate individually, and getting his backing vocalists to chime in with him to make every line sound like a stadium-worthy chant. Even with the song’s gentle bounce and breezy guitar work, the chorus (and like many Marley songs, “Is This Love?” is pretty much all chorus–just try attempting to section of verses in this thing) is intense enough to really make it an emotional song, and I remember being particularly affected by it as a kid. (Even at a young age I was always drawn to love songs that were a little bit on the practical and/or specific side, I guess–not sure what that says about me exactly.) The song doesn’t sound repetitive as much as it just sounds cyclical, always feeding back into itself and just fading out rather than really ending. Kind of works with the “Every day and every night, we’ll be together” sentiment.
Perhaps, as in many areas of life, the frat boys have the right idea with this one, and it should be on us to come around to their way of thinking. Minus the tie-dyed t-shirts anyway.
As I guess I alluded to in an earlier article, this is one of my absolute favorite songs of the 1980s. There’s exactly one thing I don’t love about it, and it’s not even really the song’s fault–the fact that for about its first three seconds, the intro sounds exactly like the intro to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” (Listen if you don’t believe me.) That’s not in itself a bad thing, since that opening synth wash works very well as an intro to both, but it messes me up because a) Sometimes I hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” on the radio and get really excited about it being “Is This Love?” for a couple of seconds, only to be cruelly disappointed that it’s the still-very-good Bon Jovi song that I just heard at a bar last weekend and b) There’s always the chance that someday I’ll be up in some sort of grand national name-that-tune-type trivia competition and have to make a split-second decision about which song is being played after I reflexively buzz in, and invariably choose the wrong one. (Hey, stranger things have happened.)
But yeah, that’s about it–everything else about Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?” is perfection to me. Much as NBA purists bellyache over the loss of the mid-range jumper, I pine for the days of songs like “Is This Love?”–the mid-range power-ballad. The book on hair metal bands in the late 80s /early 90s was simple–your first single was your balls-out rocker, and your second was your power-ballad, and there wasn’t supposed to be much in between. “Is this Love?” was the third single released off Whitensake’s self-titled album, and though it probably falls in more easily as a power ballad–it’s certainly not balls-out, and it has a yearning and vaguely wussy quality to it–there’s a real pulse and energy to it that you just don’t hear in your average Winger tear-jerker. The bass line, and it being so high in the mix, is the key (sorry, I don’t actually believe that every song has a key and I promise not to use that phrase again in this article, but it’s true here), giving the song a kind of walking rhythm to it that prevents it from getting bogged down in its thick atmosphere and introspection.
And the atmosphere is thick. Regardless of your feelings of the genre, one could never say that the hair metal superpowers didn’t know their way around a recording studio, and from the deep resonance of the double-tracked guitars of the solo, the airy synths that segue perfectly into the song’s introduction, to the eternal echo of the drums throughout (yes, this was still the 1980s), the production is just about immaculate. The best part is the interplay between the bass and the song’s gorgeous main guitar line, a hook as striking and mysterious as anything the scene had produced since Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” And when it settles in to that minor ending pattern (which always reminded me of a similar two-measure bit at the end of the intro to Spandau Ballet’s “True,” though you’ll have to tell me whether that actually makes sense or not)…good lord, it’s beautiful. It’s everything that the song’s lyrics called out for.
Speaking of which…I don’t know how much thought you’ve really put into analyzing the totality of the David Coverdale ouevre, but if the answer is “some,” you’d probably have to agree that this is his mastework. Lyrically speaking, this is what generally what I ask for in my pop music: Intricate, contemplative verses, leading to a big, obvious chorus. Some lines in the verses just kill me: “Wasted days and sleepless nights / And I can’t wait to see you again,” “How else can I put it babe / My back’s against the wall.” Nothing terribly poetic, obviously, but nicely illustrative, and reflecting the perfect mixture of confusion, intrigue and outright desperation that the song calls for. And no need to fancy things up on the chorus, just cut right to the heart of the matter: “Is this love that I’m feeling / Is this the love that I’ve been searching for?”
And if you don’t even buy “nicely illustrative and perflectly reflective” for the lyrics reading them on paper, well, I might be swayed a little by Coverdale’s soaring delivery. Maybe the second-closest thing that the hair metal scene had to its own Robert Plant (the first being Lenny Wolf of Kingdom Come, who was close to the point of uncomfortability), Coverdale had a hell of a voice. He doesn’t unleash it for most of the song–the verses are sung in a fairly understated baritone, and even the chorus is within the vocal range of the majority of mortals–the couple times he does are stunners. Namely, there’s two spots where he really lets fly. The one in the second verse is my favorite, where he repeats the “I can’t get wait to see you again” line from the first, but realizes the stakes need raising, and goes up the octave for an additional “So I can hoooold you in my AAARRRRMMMMS!!!” exhortation. That, combined with the key-raised “Is this the love / That I’ve been / SEARCHING FOOOOOORRRR????” at the end, are the song’s well-deserved emotional climaxes, and the make-or-break points for prospective karaoke performances. (I think I made it through both in my one go at it so far, but that might be selective memory–will have to try again soon.)
Video is underrated, too–another Tawny Kitaen tango, but with more tortured longing and less auto-humping. (Although it can’t be a coincidence that Coverdale slams her against a car at the end–must be an intended “Oh right, that’s where I know that chick from!” callback for the audience.)
I cede here to the wisdom of YouTube user (and highest-rated commenter) magoz01 paraguay on the video for “Is This Love?”
Survivor one of the most underrated power pop bands of the 80’s. This energized ballad shows the main traits of a glory age for music and proves that Survivor is more than soundtracks for Rocky.
True on all accounts. The “glory age for music” that our boys Mags is referring to here would of course be the “age before irony existed,” a period of pop music that Survivor defined perfectly and ultimately helped kill forever. It’s no coincidence that this band released their last (unsuccessful) album in 1988 and broke up in 1989–Survivor simply could not have survived (no pun intended, somehow) one second into the 1990s. They were pure pop/rock genuity from the last era where bands could still afford not to have a trace of self-awareness to them. Journey is the obvious point of comparison, but even they could be emotionally complex and musically creative at times. When stacked up against lines like “I can feel you tremble when we touch / And I feel the hand of fate” and “I was living for a dream / Loving for a moment,” even Perry and Co. kind of have to think to themselves “Woah guys, take a step or two back.” After Survivor, American musical audiences could rightfully claim emotional detachment as a measure of self-defense.
Hearing these songs, though, you can’t help but get a little nostalgic for the pre-alternative era. There’s just such unrestrained effusiveness in these songs–joy, amazement, urgency, desire, whatever–and it’s all funnelled for maximal impact. It could’ve been a recipe for disaster were the band lesser songwriters, but they were among the more competent hook-crafters of their decade. That’s why “Eye of the Tiger,” the one song that everyone remembers them for, actually still sounds pretty badass the 1469th time you hear it during March Madness season alone, and it’s why it’s sort of unfortunate that more of their 80s hits (and they had way more than you’d think) didn’t survive in the public consciousness in the same way. “High on You,” “I Can’t Hold Back,” “The Search is Over” (claimed by friend of the blog Victor Lee as his eventual wedding song, along with Firehouse’s “Love of a Lifetime”) and even “Burning Heart,” the band’s less-heralded Rocky theme (but one unforgettable for any fan of Rocky IV‘s endless stream of workout montages)–all infectious, smile-inducing, thoroughly solid jewels of XM 80s on 8, or whatever it calls itself on Sirius these days.
Naturally, I hold “Is This Love?,” the band’s final top ten hit, in this esteem as well. It’s a little strange that it came out at pretty much the exact time as the Whitesnake song (Records are a little sketchy as to which came first, but I’m pretty sure it’s the Survivor song) and contains a virtually identical chorus (“Is this love that I’m feeling? / Is this love that’s been keeping me up all night?” vs. “Is this love that I’m feeling? / Is this the love that I’ve been searching for?”). But just as there was plenty of room for three different “Creep” hits in the mid-90s, the pop sphere could certainly handle both of theses songs occupying similar radio space in early 1987. And though the subject matters and choruses are certainly similar, the tenor of the songs is quite different–the Survivor one is sprightly, with a tone contemplative but decidedly optimistic, while the Whitesnake song is a slow, lustful burn with a strong current of personal torment. Both songs profess a great deal of sleep loss, but if Survivor singer Jimi Jamison is just staring wide-eyed at the ceiling with his heart racing, David Coverdale is keeping himself occupied by downing a fifth of Jack and ripping his bedsheets to pieces.
Which you like more may come down to personal taste, though I believe at the very least the verses to the Whitesnake song are significantly stronger–I still have trouble recalling too many details about the Survivor one, and when I listen to it I find them to be a little distracting. Where it can absolutely go toe-to-toe with the ‘Snake is in the chorus department, of which it packs an absolute marvel. Like the other songs, the simplicity of the questioning gets to the song’s essence in a way more powerful than anything more flowery or verbose possibly could have, and I’m an absolute sucker for 80s songs with chorus hooks that spend all their time running up and down the scale (See: Blue, Electric.) I still might prefer the “High on You” chorus for sheer sugary sweetness, possibly because I love the way the vocal and keyboard hooks in that one talk to each other, but as far as evidence of Mags’s claim about Survivor being one of the more underrated power-pop bands of the 80s, this should do you just fine.
(FTR, if I was an aspiring young indie rocker that wanted to add an old-school cover to my band’s live set, I think doing a medley fusing these two together would be an absurdly inspired choice. Just a thought.)
As unfortunately usually seems to be the case with my four-song request articles, I’m afraid that this last one is going to have to get the short shrift a little, though it’s mostly because I’d never heard this song before and don’t much care for it. My complaint with this is the same as my complaint with the one Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! song I’d previously heard (“The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth”), and it’s not a particularly original one–dude’s voice suuuuuuuuuuucks. I’m sure there’s some excuse to be made for Alec Ounsworth’s hideous shriek, and I’d be semi-curious to hear it, but I tend to believe that a bad vocalist is just a bad vocalist. I read his voice described once as sounding “Like Dan Bejar after he swallowed a whole bag of dicks,” and while I suppose I can’t technically confirm that, on a purely literal sense, it doesn’t seem totally inaccurate to me. The most generous I can give Ounsworth is that he sort of sounds like my brother doing a Comical Wussy Indie Rock Vocalist impression, and as you can probably tell, that’s not particularly generous.
Of course, sometimes having a particularly great band and/or song behind him can make a bad vocalist forgivable, but I’m not sure if that’s really what we have here. This might’ve been a fun number even with a vocalist going on 80% Elephant 6 instead of 160%, but unfortunately we’ll never know, since the only memory I’ll have of this song will be of Ounsworth’s voice cracking horribly all the way down the “I KNOOOWWWWWW” part, the vocal equivalent of a man falling off a ladder and hitting his head on every rung below. Besides, after spending 2500 words extolling the virtues of the simplicity and directness of the three other “Is This Love?”s, ‘”I see you’re climbing a tree, and I know / That it’s easier to be up high in the air / Than oh, on the ground” just isn’t going to cut it.
Feh. At least the warped guitar part in “Yellow Country Teeth” was kind of cool.
For the record, the Intensities in Ten Suburbs all-time list of the ten best songs with titles questioning the nature of love (in either a specific and/or general sense), not including the four mentioned here:
10. The KLF – “What Time is Love?” (Admittedly somewhat less introspective than the others)
9. Derek and the Dominoes – “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”
9. Heart – “What About Love?”
7. Everly Brothers – “When Will I Be Loved?”
6. Squeeze – “Is That Love?”
5. LCD Soundsystem – “Where is Love?” (No YouTube available, presumably because James Murphy hates the song.)
4. Van Halen – “Why Can’t This Be Love?”
3. Haddaway – “What is Love?”
2. Bee Gees – “How Deep is Your Love?”
1. Spinners – “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love?” (The only song on this list that could give the Whitesnake song a run for its money in terms of all-time supremacy.)
Also, though Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” does not technically contain a question in its title, it still deserves mention for being a sort of spiritual predecessor–both musically and lyrically–to a number of the songs discussed here.
Please continue to submit your article requests in the comments section below, or at twitter.com/intensities. If I don’t get to it the week of the request, I will soon enough thereafter.