“Miss You”

By  |  March 30, 2017

2016 Southern Music Issue CD: Visions of the Blues

Track 17 – “Miss You” by Alabama Shakes


 

Blues people have always understood the value of affordable wheels. “I’ve got Ford engine movements in my hips,” sang the genre’s one-hit wonder Cleo Gibson on an Okeh Records disc recorded in 1929, “ten thousand miles guaranteed.” Sloppy Henry, who laid down sides in the same Atlanta studio, echoed her endorsement: “The best cheap car on the market today is a Ford,” he warbled. Nearly a century later, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes updates the sentiment, invoking the third-best-selling sedan in America. In the song most redolent of the blues on the adventurous Alabama band’s second album, Sound & Color, a bereft lover watches the source of her joy and sorrow drive off in a Honda Accord. 

This story comes from real life. Howard has said in interviews that the song, a long moan in 3/4 time, was inspired by a real couple addicted to drugs and each other. (She changed the car model to protect their identities; I’d speculate that it was really a Kia Soul.) “I’m gonna miss you, and your Mickey Mouse tattoo,” she murmurs in the first line, relaxing into the mix of nostalgia and loneliness that colors the days after a breakup. Behind her, the Shakes gently unfold the road that the song will travel: a classic chord progression in 6/8 time, with Ben Tanner’s organ laying down white lines on the highway for the guitar and the rhythm section to veer across. As the first introspective verse accelerates toward a dangerous swerve, then pulls back, then vrooms again, “Miss You” creates its own soundtrack pouring out of an imaginary dashboard radio: Etta James wringing every teardrop from “I’d Rather Go Blind”; Ray Charles elegantly going down in “Drown in My Own Tears”; Otis Redding realizing he’s gone over the cliff in “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; Janis Joplin, especially, pulling at the frayed upholstery of her soul in “Ball and Chain.”

Howard and her mates are not revivalists, though. This song is a new model—built on a standard frame, maybe, but showing an understanding of how the blues legacy both enables the expression of chaotic emotions and streamlines them, tuning them up for maximum performance within a structure that demands precision as much as openness. “Miss You” has become known as one of the live numbers in which Howard really lets her amazing voice rip; yet on every verse, right up until the final breakaway, she’s modulating the pain, second-guessing and regret in the lyrics, showing how the mind keeps turning the heart’s engine over, even when everything’s already in pieces. There’s a moment right before the final climax when she shows that she knows those tail lights aren’t turning around. “I cannot chase you,” she nearly whispers. “I can’t make you stay. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.” The wordless interlude is a moment’s pause before raw feeling rips through her, her way of adding a little coolant. In the end, the song doesn’t utterly break down. It leaves the listener with the sense that it will keep running indefinitely, there whenever another shattered mourner needs to climb in and ride.


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Ann Powers is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. She is the author of several books, including the upcoming Good Booty: Sex and Love, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, to be published in 2017. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.