Sunday, October 11, 2020

"Come Back To Me": The Futile Words Uttered By Fans Of This Kind Of R&B Ever Since 1990

So much '90s R&B makes me want to reach for the hand sanitizer. When I listen to "Come Back To Me," here's what I'm wondering: why didn't R&B move more in this direction? Lush, classy, soft, hypnotic, melancholy ... could've happened, but I guess it just wasn't in the cards. A few artists might have picked up on this sweet, autumnal sensitivity, like P.M. Dawn and ... well, P.M. Dawn. You know, R&B that I might want to listen to in my bedroom as I fall asleep at night? I feel like even the ballads in '90s R&B mostly ended up being about fucking. It was R&B you'd listen to in your bedroom as you fell asleep at night ... after having fucked somebody. And Janet went right along with it!

I like to think of "Come Back To Me" as Rhythm Nation 1814's "Let's Wait Awhile." Both songs are (essentially, if one ignores Rhythm Nation's "Interlude: Livin' ... In Complete Darkness") the second-to-last songs on their respective albums, both songs are the gentler, more downbeat, G-rated counterparts to the raunchier, more sexually fulfilling tracks that follow them, both songs wrap Janet's lead vocals in a dreamy, scintillating mass of background Janets, both songs peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, and both songs sound, to these ears at least, like they were recorded and released much later than they actually were. For years I thought "Come Back To Me" might have been a track from janet., or hell, even one of those new tracks from Design of a Decade. "Come Back to Me" sounds like a song from 1995, not 1989. Anita Baker's "Giving You the Best That I Got" - now that's an R&B song that sounds like it's from 1989. Wait a minute, wasn't I just saying that '90s R&B didn't sound like "Come Back to Me"? I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of R&B-adjacent mid-'90s balladry sounded like "Come Back to Me": think Madonna's "Take a Bow," or Toni Braxton's "Breathe Again." But those songs sort of plodded along. They didn't carry the same air of mystery, of evocative atmosphere, that this one does. "Come Back to Me" is like the Perrier of R&B ballads.

Those mainly familiar with the single mix ought to get their hands on the album mix, even though the end of the previous track, "Lonely," lingers a half-second too long on the CD edit (in true "listening to the Abbey Road medley on shuffle" fashion). Because, for my money, as with "Escapade," the most melodically haunting section of "Come Back to Me" is the bridge, and like "Escapade," the album mix of "Come Back to Me" opens with that sweet, sweet bridge. Remember that quasi-trend on several hits from the Summer of '88 I attempted to describe as "the Egyptian thing"? The bridge on "Come Back to Me" is so damn Egyptian, I can practically hear Omar Sharif on backing vocals.

But there's another element besides the chord progression or the vocal overdubs that provides "Come Back to Me" with its stately grandeur. Only after reading the Wikipedia article did I hone in on what might separate the song so thoroughly from its late '80s peers: the strings. Per Jimmy Jam:
"At the time we did it, it was one of my favorite songs. I loved the lyrics and the vocal on it ... the interesting thing [...] was the live strings ... I never heard the strings when we were doing it. We'd kept it simple, and Janet said, "It'd be great to get some strings on this." There was a guy in Minneapolis [arranger Lee Blaske] who was an incredible string guy. He arranged a lot of our string stuff. I said, "Hey, Lee, come up with a string thing for this," and he did. We loved it so much that the end of the song, it basically fades out with just the strings as the last thing you hear.
Yeah. Oh yeah. And the ambient rain sound effect doesn't hurt either. Also, when I learned on Wikipedia that Janet recorded a Spanish language version of "Come Back to Me" titled "Vuelve a Mi," my brain initially read that as "Vulva and Me," which perhaps could have been a track from her more explicit Velvet Rope era, but probably would have been out of place on Rhythm Nation 1814.

Even the video (featuring the album mix) feels more like a 1995 video than a 1990 video. This wasn't some low-budget, "splice together a bunch of live footage in a panic" hack job. Oh no. This was filmed in a little city called "Paris," and it's littered with shots of sexy Parisian statues and sexy Parisian rail cars and sexy Parisian apartment buildings (one of which, I'm guessing, the key dangling from Janet's ear supposedly unlocks?) and sexy Parisian lovers' spats on a staircase involving a hurdled shoe. This video's got class up the wazoo. I haven't done the research, but I'm fairly certain this is the last time Janet appeared in a video wearing an overcoat. I hope she donated it to a good cause.