Bettye LaVette: “Let Me Down Easy” (Calla 102, 1965)

Sad songs come in a lot of varieties, but for me, some of the most devastating are the ones where the narrator knows things are going wrong and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. This is one of those songs. Bettye’s about to get dumped, and at this point, all she can do for damage control is hope that it’s not too unpleasant.

Man, hasn’t everyone been there at some point? If not a breakup, then something else—we like to think we have our lives under control, but there’s always some way in which we don’t. Songs like this cut right to the part of us that realizes how little control we often have.

This one heightens the gut-punched sense of loss by throwing LaVette into a chilly orchestral void—no drums to push the beat along, no warm horns, no backing vocals, just a bit of vibraphone, bass and guitar, which squeezes out a little sultry solo in the middle almost as consolation. It’s the one thing that reaches out to Bettye as she wanders the emotional wasteland.

Bettye LaVette (nee Betty Haskins) was not quite 20 when she recorded this—the usual thing to say is that it’s a precocious performance, weary beyond her years, but I don’t know about that. I think her youth is key to the performance. When you’re in your teens every letdown hits like a ton of bricks because you’ve had so relatively few of them—people over thirty, when was the last time something went wrong and it felt like your whole world was ending?

LaVette’s still doing this one live all these decades later. She never became a big soul star, though she had the voice and the ear for it.