Levi Stubbs is the great lead singer of the Four Tops; it was he who sang “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,” “7 Rooms of Gloom,” “I’ll Turn to Stone.” His rough, broken shout was all over the radio between the fall of 1966 and the summer of 1967, and it was something to hear: Stubbs seemed to become more desperate, more terrorized, with every new hit. He was the most nakedly passionate of the classic Motown singers. With Smokey Robinson, there was always a palpable self-possession, a kind of self-knowledge rendered as elegant craft, that protected the listener from whatever fears Robinson might be voicing; with Stubbs there was no protection at all.
Both vocally and instrumentally, Bragg rises to the extremism of Stubbs’ music. A British singer best known for didactic protest songs about the evils of war and class oppression, Bragg has a heavy East End accent: here, “place” comes out as “plice.” His voice is thick, almost cloddish when you first hear it; though his delivery is measured, rarely even pushed, intimations of impotent violence are unmistakable. He plays electric guitar without a band, and it’s an odd sound—as naked as Stubbs’ emotion, but more displacing. Nothing muffles his tones; even sweet notes communicate harshly. Chords shoot out all over the place, get away from him, pictures without frames. The effect isn’t so much stark as flatly chaotic. A singer accompanying him- or herself on acoustic guitar almost automatically dramatizes control; Bragg dramatizes the will to speak, on the verge of language blowing up in his face.
“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is about a woman who listens to old Four Tops songs, maybe because their intensity lets her come to grips with her own feelings, maybe because the agony in Stubbs’ voice lets her take comfort, imagining that someone else hurts more than she does. She ran away from home, got married too young, her husband left her. One day he comes back and shoots her, but she lives. Save for a few ostentatiously poetic lines (“They stitched her back together and left her heart in pieces on the floor”), Bragg not only tells the story cleanly, he gets inside it, finds time for pauses: “Her husband was one of those blokes/Who seems to only laugh at his own jokes.” This is writing on the level of the best of Elvis Costello, and that’s as good as pop songwriting gets.
Rock ’n’ roll songs about rock ’n’ roll are legion, but songs about the place of the music in the everyday lives of its listeners, songs about how people actually use what they hear, are rare. When such songs aren’t merely sentimental they’re usually thin—one song referring to another merely to fix the time frame. This isn’t what’s happening in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” but what is happening is unclear. One source of the tune’s power is that it exists outside of genre; you don’t come to it already knowing how to listen to it.
The role of Levi Stubbs in Bragg’s song is anything but transparent. You can’t tell if the woman is simply listening to him, or if, like a ghost, he’s watching her—if the tears are running down his face not because of his own suffering, nor even out of sympathy for the woman who’s listening to him, but because, singing helplessly in the background when the husband comes in with a gun, he can’t save her. Is that what the woman feels—is that why, when the story is over, “She takes off the Four Tops tape/And puts it back in its case”? As a man who once did remarkable things, Levi Stubbs is elevated by this song—he’ll never receive a finer tribute—but he’s also annihilated. In some ways, the tape sliding back into its case is the most painful moment in the song. It means the woman can no longer listen to Levi Stubbs; whatever she wanted from him, whatever she needed, she can’t get anymore.
The balance between the spectral singer and the realistic woman is perfect, and awful: at the end of the song, she is absolutely alone, and so is Levi Stubbs. Her life has taken her to places he can’t reach. The relationship between the two, just his chorus counterpointing the narrative of her life, has been drawn so tightly that when the threads are cut she has no one to listen to, and he has no one to hear him. This is a story that hasn’t been told before; you keep playing the record, over and over, trying to make it give up a better ending.
Artforum, November 1986