So you can tell right off the bat this guy’s sad: the slow beat, the folkie strumming of the same guitar figure 3-4 times, he can’t work even up the energy to come up with a variation, and then the voice enter, dolorous, doomed. Sure enough the singer jumps right in declaiming about how there’s a river of love out there in the world, but, tough break, it doesn’t stand a chance against the rivers of grief and tears, it’s river vs. river action tonight on HBO!
You’re right at the point of saying, okay, not sure I need any more grand philosophical statements about how awful the world is right at the moment, when this verse happens:
I had to run before I knew how to crawl
The first step was hard but I have had trouble with them all
But now the night grows darker and the day grows dim
Because I know I never will see you again
And I almost made you happy…
Suddenly it’s a different song entirely: not a grand philosophical statement but one guy trying to make a sense of his current situation by resorting to grand philosophical statements. Is it the world or me? It’s easier to blame the world! By the time we get to the river of fire at the end of the song it seems less cranky biblical accusation than compassion, one of those moments of empathy for humanity you sometimes feel in the midst of your own great pain. Wow, you think, does everyone feel this bad at times?
“I almost made you happy” is such a heartbreaking line, even more so because it seems so tossed off. It makes me think of other musical moments of understated heartbreak. “I’m a Fool To Want You” destroys me every time I hear it, but so does the way Sinatra sings “We took for granted a lot” in his late-period version of Sondheim’s “Good Thing Going.” “Long Long Time” is more overpowering, but it’s also affecting to hear the offhand way Linda Ronstadt sings “I’d do anything just to see you again” in “Love Has No Pride,” as if the sentiment is so self-evident she doesn’t need to dress it up or make it more artful. “God Give Me Strength” is the home run on Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s “Painted From Memory” album, but we shouldn’t overlook the way Elvis sings “Were you really so unhappy then?/I never knew.” Paul Simon remarking “As if I’d never noticed/the way she brushed her hair from her forehead” on “Graceland,” Stevie Wonder asking “Why didn’t you stay?” at the end of “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.”
T-Bone Burnette went on to make a few albums that doubled down on the cranky biblical accusation aspect of “River of Love” at the expense of the direct, surprised, personal poetry of “I almost made you happy.” Look them up if you are in the mood for someone to tell you how evil consumerism is. Better yet, look up “Oh No Darling” from the same album this song comes from and smile at the charming “rave on/rayon/Sav-On” triple rhyme. Rumor has it T-Bone has done pretty well for himself in other aspects of the music business.