The Power of Falsetto

And today’s exercise in weepy-potential rock ‘n’ roll is brought to you by the Righteous Brothers:

The Brothers weren’t the first to record “Unchained Melody,” but their 1965 version is the one that stuck. And that’s because this soap opera in 6/8 time seems custom-made for Bobby Hatfield’s big, emotional tenor. And he makes the most of it from end to end, coming in with that first “Ohhhhh” just a hair before the accompaniment begins; the beginning of the song is so abrupt, in fact, it almost sounds like a mistake.

Bobby’s allowed a couple of lines with a simple accompaniment before the strings start looming up in the distance, followed by the first notes from the ooh-and-aah brigade. But things stay fairly reserved in back even as Hatfield goes big for the first time at about :54, with that first extended “Are you still miiiiiiine?” And isn’t it lovely, just a hint of things to come before the first simple but passionate declaration, “I need your love, I need your love.”

The strings begin to step forward during the quieter “Lonely river flows” section, but the part you’re waiting for starts just before the two-minute mark, with the second, “Oh, my love, my darling.” At this point everything’s in motion, the swings are swirling and the backup singers are aaaah-ing energetically, to make a frame for a vocal performance guaranteed to give you chills.

What makes it work so well, both musically and emotionally, is that Hatfield was a hell of a singer (duh). But really. “Unchained Melody” demands both all-in emotionality and great technique, things that often don’t travel together in rock ‘n’ roll. The song has considerable range, of course, but the reason it really matters that “Unchained Melody” is done by a singer clearly in command is because he can let it go. That sky-high, almost breaking “I need your love” at 2:55 works so well, and has so much power, because Hatfield sounds like a man whose feelings are nearly overwhelming his ability to express them. If you’re not in control in the first place, it doesn’t mean anything when you lose it.

This is also why I don’t think “Unchained Melody” really works when it’s done by a woman. A man resorting to falsetto has a very different impact than a woman who’s just hitting a high note, and what should be an emotional peak tends to come off as mere technical fireworks. In an observation limited to this song only: If a man goes up that high, it’s because he has to. If a woman does it, it’s because she can.

The term “power ballad” usually refers to some metal meatheads having an earnest moment, or an arena rock cheeseball sentimentally blowing the roof off the joint. But Bobby Hatfield on “Unchained Melody”? This is a power ballad.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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