Solace Overload: Living Colour, “Solace Of You” (1990)

Vernon Reid of Living Colour

Vernon Reid of Living Colour

In case you too have been undone by Living Colour’s “Solace Of You,” here is one chord geek’s attempt to figure out what does the undoing.

“Solace Of You” 1

Surely one of the loveliest American pieces ever inspired by West African guitar pop, “Solace Of You” moves from the cheerful I – V – IV major chords in the verse, that is, D – A – G in the key of D, to a chorus that gently shifts the key center so that the same three chords, now in the order G – D – A, register as flat-VII – IV – I in the key of A. These being the very same chords, I have to carry over the simple feeling I had in the I – V – IV verse, but now it’s layered together with the angstier optimism of a flat-VII – IV – I (compare U2’s “Desire” or Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me”), and then I’m taken along the same sequence a whole step down—F – C – G being the flat-VII – IV – I of the key of G, which at the same time can be heard as the even bluer flat-VI – flat-III – flat-VII in A or flat-III – flat-VII – IV in D, pick your point of reference. (Pick ‘em both.)

This relaxingly lowers me and reassuringly supports me and feels wonderfully end-of-the-day solaceful. This much is fantastic. But what melts me, pierces me, takes me over the top or under the bottom—still using the simplest means—is the first melody note in the D following G, when the singer returns.

“Solace Of You” 2

G                       D           A
Gotta go in –    side      back where it started

That note is a C-sharp, the major third of an A chord—actually a C-sharp that bends down to an A. C-sharp belongs a bit strangely to a D chord as a major seventh note—indeed I’m required to hear it that way, since the chord is D—yet the phantom A chord claims the note very insistently because “Solace Of You” has established itself as that kind of simple-strong-harmony song. The A chord claiming the note means that I can’t help but realize that an A chord might very well be in that position in the sequence instead of the actual D chord—and it would be, if there had been a D instead of a G as the first chord (for “Gotta go in -”), and moreover the D would have been a logical way to start (though not actually as good, because then we’d have to figure out somewhere else to go for the third chord after D and A). So there’s a nice harmonic layering in hearing G – D where I know D – A might have been, given the clue of the C-sharp note. As already established, the C-sharp hinting at that shift is, with the D chord, an exotic major seventh note just a half-step below the tonic D, initiating a poignant descent from having not quite reached the D. But I also remember that the D chord has been poignantly displaced from being the I chord of the song to being the IV of a flat-VII – IV – I sequence in A. So three great effects kick in together, and it’s more solace than I can stay calm with.

“Solace Of You” 3

This is a remarkable track for various other unions it brings about: the combination of the straight-ahead pop harmony with the reflective, caressing vocal and guitar tone; the thematic union of romantically addressing a sweetest “you” with the idea of coming home to myself alone, myself self-realized; the eventual union of the self-reliant lead singer with a chorus that sounds somewhat female and African giving support—profoundly needed support after all—both as female (the mother) and as African (the homeland). But I give it a Hooks Gold Star for that momentary union of the C-sharp note, the implied A chord (just turned from a V into a I), and the actual D chord (just turned from a I into a IV).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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