Screw all you movie & TV soundtrackers of the past 10-plus years who’ve helped make Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” one of the most over-exposed amazing songs ever. (Ditto for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) Actually, screw you all except whoever put “Sinnerman” in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, since that’s where I first heard the song, so I’m grateful for that.
Still, I can’t stay too mad at those non-Thomas Crown soundtrackers. After all, “Sinnerman” is such a blistering track that it never fails to bubble my mojo, no matter how many times I hear it. First and foremost, it’s my favorite performance by my favorite singer of all-time. She may not have had quite the same grace and polish in her voice as the other ladies in the soul/jazz pantheon, but to me she always sounded like she had the hottest fire in her belly. She was about as rock n’ roll as you could get without technically being classifiable as a rock n’ roll singer. She had such superhuman power and charisma that she’d crack and slip out of tune a bunch of times and she’d still sound superhuman. Where, say, Aretha Franklin sounds like a human with divine talent, Nina Simone sounds like a god with human foibles.
There will be oodles more Nina Simone added to the Post-Apocalyptic iPod later on, and therefore much more opportunity for me to rhapsodize about why I love her music, so for now I’ll just return my focus to what I love about “Sinnerman.” For much of the track’s 10 minutes, the rhythm’s just a relentless rappita-tappita on the hi-hat that sounds like a fast-burning fuse. Along with the super-simple piano lick that sounds like desperation incarnate, the instruments nearly make the lyrics redundant. They sound exactly like a sinner on the run with nowhere to hide. Compared to this version, all previous recorded versions of “Sinnerman” seem about as menacing as “I’m A Little Teapot.”
Just when it sounds like the song might be getting too repetitive, one of the greatest mid-song interludes in the history of music arrives. The drums and piano gradually crescendo beneath Ms. Simone’s hypnotic, androgynous vocal into a burst of gospel fury. Tom toms rumble and cymbals crash, and then…a hush. The bass keeps the blood flowing as the guitar plays peek-a-boo like a frisky jackrabbit. The percussion transmogrifies into fevered claps, and the piano mutates into a brief solo both austere and bewitched. And just when it feels like how can this possibly keep up?, it goes back to the verses: once again we’re running to the boiling river and running to the boiling sea and running to the Lord until one last explosion, full of the insane piano pounding and singing in tongues that Nina Simone did better than anyone else, past, present and very probably future.
Aside from the fact that “Sinnerman” is a masterpiece of recorded music by my favorite singer ever, the main reason I’m uploading this 10-minute behemoth to the Post-Apocalyptic iPod is because, well, I can’t deny that it’s a great song to have ready for my soundtrack. I don’t mean TV or movie soundtracks though, since I doubt I’ll have time to do much filmmaking in the Post-Apocalypse, and even if I did, I wouldn’t dare score my projects with such a now-cliched song. I’m just talking about soundtracking my own life. Like if I’m ever on the run from gangs of Post-Apocalyptic marauders, or a torrential river of fire, or my own guilty conscience, “Sinnerman” will be the first song on my RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE playlist.
Approx. 10 minutes, 9 seconds; 7,890 minutes, 42 seconds left on the iPod