November 7, 2011


The One That Got Away

Drake could scarcely have picked a weirder song as a preview of his second album than "Marvins Room"—but that's what we've got as its first official video. It's a subdued, slurred, sad piece that's both about and in the spirit of drunken late-night phone calls where neither party is exactly sure of what they want. Its downshift into chopped-and-screwed half-speed for a chorus near the end suggests the narrator fuzzing out as he realizes he's not going to get any action tonight and might not have been into the idea in the first place.

Still, it's a deceptively complicated song, made more complicated by its title. Who's the Marvin (or Marvins) mentioned nowhere in the lyrics? What's the room mentioned nowhere in the lyrics (although there's clearly a hotel room or two in the video)? Does it have anything to do with Scott McPherson's 1991 play of the same name, or the 1996 movie adapted from it that starred Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio? Or with the L.A. recording studio called "Marvin's Room" that Marvin Gaye founded in 1975?

For an answer, we may have to go to another famously emotion-minded Canadian singer-songwriter, one who, like Drake, made his name outside music before he found fame within it; who, like Drake, has recently turned to near-beatless, floating synthesizer accompaniments.

Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist before he was a musician, and to this day he leads with his words; he called one of his most famous albums Songs From a Room.

"Chelsea Hotel #2," the best-remembered song from Cohen's 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, recalls what seems to be a different room, in New York City, and captures a similarly ambiguous emotional state of "I need you/I don't need you."

It's not much of a secret that "Chelsea Hotel" was Cohen's song about his affair with blues-rock singer Janis Joplin. (Here's a video of Joplin tearing it up on "Cry Baby" on stage with the Full Tilt Boogie Band in Toronto in 1970, a few months before her death.)

Drake and the woman he's talking to in "Marvins Room," though, are the beautiful people, and they know it—the song happens in the aftermath of the kind of hedonistic party superstars like to make us think they have all the time. Cohen's just the opposite, "oppressed by the figures of beauty." In fact, in some ways "Chelsea Hotel #2" is the anti-"Best I Ever Had": "I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best," Cohen mutters. "I can't keep track of each fallen robin." But he does manage to suggest that he cares by claiming he doesn't: "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That's all; I don't think of you that often." He's just saying she could've done better.

Cohen's "I don't need you/and all of that jiving around," actually, recalls the strangest and murkiest of the records Marvin Gaye made in his own Marvin's Room for a few years in the mid-'70s. Gaye felt constrained by the production-line standards of his earlier years on Motown Records, and his studio became a space where he could work out his new material at his leisure. (A few weeks ago, this column mentioned Gaye's "I Want You," which was recorded there; see that link for a film clip of it that appears to have been shot in Marvin's Room itself.)

Gaye and his wife, Anna Gordy—Motown founder Berry Gordy's sister—divorced in 1977, partly over Gaye's relationship with Janis Hunter (who he married a few months later). As part of the divorce settlement, Gaye agreed to give Anna half the royalties from his next album. The record he came up with, 1978's Here, My Dear, was directly aimed at her--a double-LP about their broken relationship.

Its anchor is the six-minute-long, free-rambling, chorusless song "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You."

Play it next to "Marvins Room," and there are uncanny echoes--the way both Gaye and Drake shift between speaking and singing, the "stop loving" and "start hatin'," Drake's "you still think about the times we had" and Gaye's "do you remember all of the fights we had?" Both of their songs, as well as Cohen's, are epitaphs for moments that linger in the memory—farewells that can't entirely let go.