On “At Last”

It’s the song that burdens you when you’re already down. It doesn’t make things any better, because it reminds you of the aspirations of love never manifest. You walk the streets of New York, or San Francisco, or London, or Seattle, wherever you are, and it’s rainy. A dark and stormy night and all that jazz. You hear Etta singing it, and you realize why you’ve failed in love. You could never meet the expectations laid out in her song. It compounds and redoubles and complicates that which was already needlessly complicated. But in the end, after you’ve stumbled out of too many doorways and spanned through your list of wishes, it’s the only song that really makes any sense to you. So you sit in your apartment in Olympia, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Dublin, wherever you are, and you just let it make things worse with how beautiful it is.

It’s the song that goes off when you see a glimmer of hope. The one that you might at first be inclined to mistrust. When you meet that person at first you gauge interest, you analyze the possibilities. During this phase any number of mindless, optimistic pop songs go through your head. Then at some point you get that sense in the pit of your stomach, and all those songs turn off. “At Last” turns on. You remember playing it when you were desperate. Now you’re hearing it in hope. It’s the same song. When Etta sang “my lonely days are over,” you used to focus on the phrase “lonely days.” Now you hear that they could possibly be “over.” You don’t know where it’s going, but for now you have “a thrill to rest (your) cheek to.” When Etta sings that line, she’s at the precipice. The next line will take her over, but for now, for you, you’re resting in the thrill against your cheek. You could fall any minute, but you savor what you have now.

It’s the song that lets you know you’ve accomplished love as fully as you can. It’s the final sweet answer, the assurance of success. When you know you’ve finished the puzzle, “At Last” finishes too. Part of it has to do with the strings – they’ve been walking this path with you the whole song, settling into a bed of comfort when they need to, rising up in bluesy joy at other times, and in the end coming to a gentle, major-chord completion. Etta goes through the same phases: She casts her lot in sad remembrance, breaks out in rapture when she recognizes her moment of transcendence, then adjourns with a gratified exhale as her heart is troubled no more. You might catch that moment as you’re – I’m just projecting here – restfully at home, maybe looking at your family, your two kids with another on the way, and the person who helped bring you to this point of contentment and surety. You hope your contentment is hers too. When Etta comes to her resolution “At Last,” so do you.

There aren’t a lot of songs that work in all phases of love – sadness, hope and accomplishment. Here’s one of the two or three that do.

Etta James–At Last

Sweet dreams, Etta.
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