Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Bread – “If”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in March 1971
Why “Bread”? I know Ambrosia was taken. Why not “Butter” – it’s greasy, right? The seventies were the last period when Americans lacked self-consciousness about eating the stuff, replacing it with margarine (the pendulum has swung back, thankfully). Or “Jell-O”? Or “George Jefferson”? Or “Pantsuit”? Give David Gates credit: he wrote music that honored his band’s name. For several years Bread were among the decade’s most reliable hitmakers: six consecutive gold albums, a compilation certified at more than five million units, and six top tens, including the #1 multi-grain classic “Make It with You.” Specializing in solid acoustic earnestness, Bread envisaged music as a tornado shelter in which they could hunker down and play with each other’s long-ish hair while the storms of Watergate, stagflation, disco medallions raged outside.
“If” is the only one of the singles with which I have any acquaintance besides “Everything I Own,” the latter known for its humiliating Boy George cover from 1987. We’ve dealt with corn syrup-drenched performances like “If” on this survey before. In one important respect it should be an improvement: it isn’t even three minutes long. But this means Gates’ love bleating gets honed to a hard gem-like flame of intensity. I recognized “If” from its indelible guitar figure, on first listen a wah-wah effect but I’ve read on other forums was created at the mixing board. An acoustic arpeggio complements it. Both work. Then Gates pours tar on the prettiness: “If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?” In a falsetto that depends on the audience considering it sensitive, Gates notes how the sainted woman “pours herself” on him, which at the very least is a strange metaphor at the physiological and just plain logical level: he’s the one, not her, fucking writing the song and expending minutes.
One of my unspoken rules as a critic had been to, if not pardon, at least weigh how well a performer limned his or her batshittery: if the crassest sentiments sounded multi-dimensional, hence human, I would reward it with a full listen, look, or read. In the last fifteen years, as I’ve accepted how my sexuality influences my responses, I’ve resisted. But “If” tests my limits because it parses as an extraordinarily concentrated confession of a dullard, a man who finds the most obvious aural correlatives for his boring depictions of sexual obsession. To analyze “If” apart from the regnant singer-songwriter era is folly. The Joni Mitchells and Jackson Brownes and John Prines found chords and conceits equal to the task of explaining why a partner didn’t want them; despite the acoustic trappings, Bread remains wedded to a typical ah-women-what-can-ya-do ethos. If anything, it hints at what the male faction of the singer-songwriter movement advanced beyond the fancy chords and subtle conceits.