There was once a quaint notion that women could be volcanoes of sexual interest in a completely enclosed way. An indirect glance here, a strategic non-reply there, and you would feel the hottest heat there is. But you wouldn’t call that woman “hot” or “sexy” any more than you would dream of turning her body inside out: that would ruin everything.
Irma Thomas, the New Orleans Queen of Soul, is no demure damsel of yore, but she hooks us with a version of that restraint—an amazingly intense restraint—in “Ruler Of My Heart.”
Listen, in the first verse she can’t even decide whether she’s going to allow herself to sing; her notes are dropping almost out of musical pitches and into plain talk. At the peak of the song’s argument, she hums. Hear how she sings “Where can you be? I wait patiently” with the opposite of bombast at 0:31-0:36, and “Heed my cry, ease my pain” at 1:01-1:07. Hear how she diminishes volume at the end of the bridge: “Come back, come back, come back—I’ve had enough” at 0:45-0:52. Hear how many times she chooses a naturally minimized ending of a word (“the going gets rough”). And yet by the end there are enough little flare-ups of belting that no one can doubt her power.
Allen Toussaint’s arrangement is a model of restraint as well. To some extent the band is responsible for stoking the fires that the damsel keeps hidden. But the band has to be on her wavelength too. Note a ragged sparseness approaching indecision in that halting first verse, and the wonderful clear-out from 0:31 to 0:36.
Every music track tells a story on a purely musical level. Usually it’s Statement of Theme and then Dilate and Amplify, squeezed along by contrasts of solo/tutti and quiet/loud. It’s something to write home about whenever there’s a different story than this, and I think “Ruler Of My Heart” does have a different one. It’s
1. Conventional prelude to Statement of Theme
2. Question: Is there a stateable theme? (Can she come out?)
3. Sketch the Possible Theme several times, moving repeatedly from relative boldness to near-reluctance
4. Take it back (inside herself). Hum.