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+‘Justments clearly seems to be about coping with the aftermath of Bill Withers’ brief marriage to actress Denise Nicholas. They were married in 1973 and divorced in ’74, the year the LP was released. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea what happened. I just know they were divorced by the end of the following calendar year, and it doesn’t sound like it was too peaceful.
On +‘Justments, Withers explores the highs and lows of losing love with his trademark wisdom and sincerity. He always had a way of boiling things down to such beautifully simple forms. He was similar to Al Green in this way, except Bill wasn’t smooth about it. He was direct, and always sounded like his face matched his words. He wasn’t hiding anything. He couldn’t hide it if he wanted to. And, most interestingly, there’s no song on +‘Justments that leaves you feeling like Bill was making a case for himself. Maybe he was right sometimes, maybe he was wrong, and maybe he was defensive. Either way, Withers seemed to sincerely be dealing with it.
Check this—the note Bill wrote for the album’s cover:
Life like most precious gifts gives us the responsibility of upkeep. We are given the responsibility of arranging our own spaces to best benefit our survival. We have the choice of believing or not believing in things like God, friendship, marriage, love, lust or any number of simple but complicated things. We will make some mistakes both in judgment and in fact. We will help some situations and hurt some situations. We will help some people and hurt some people and be left to live with it either way. We must then make some adjustments, or as the old people back home would call them, +‘JUSTMENTS.
He manages to step outside without leaving his experience. And it’s as much about her as it is about him.
Even more telling? He can tell that it’s about us too.
The first track on +‘Justments is called “You.” It’s five minutes and 15 seconds. It has no chorus and fades out with Withers still singing. Think about that: for five straight minutes, he sings about her, about himself, about them, and about everything. He realizes everybody’s gotta be wrong. You can also hear his country insecurity as he describes a woman with tastes and interests more haute than his own. That’s probably what attracted him—the idea that a woman like her would like a country boy like him—but what eventually drove a wedge between them.
And he never stops to breathe. “You” is the definitive breakup song. It’s no “Cry Me A River,” parting-shot bullshit. I mean, it’s every single thing you feel at the end. When it’s done and no one’s said it. The moments of clarity drowned out by the best and worst of each party’s humanity. And hey . . . that’s five minutes in.
+‘Justments manages to be that all the way through.
“The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” gets into the fear most rational people have going into these things—chances are your heart’s gonna run you, not vice versa. “Well now you think of love as sitting on a mountain , think of it as being a great big rock / Won’t you think before you start to roll it down , because once you start it, you can’t make it stop.”
“Stories” speaks to the tricky equilibrium of finding someone who wants to hear your story…whose story you want to hear yourself. How you get to heaven, how you’ve been through hell. Sometimes you need to hear the same as yours, sometimes the opposite. But nobody in this world gives a damn about your story…except the person who does. Good luck finding that.
“Green Grass” may as well be a book of the Bible in my house, where my daddy’s quoted it forever: “The green grass on the other side is just an illusion. We all have our own confusions.”
“Ruby Lee” is about reaching for someone, anyone, which always sends us back through the past before finding a stranger (bad idea, yeah). “Heartbreak Road” is getting over it, while acknowledging there’s no way to figure this out without getting your heart broken a few times. “Can We Pretend,” which credits his ex, Denise Nicholas, as songwriter, is a silly attempt to act like nothing ever happened, which always sounds like such a good idea. “Make a Smile for Me” is trying just one more time, asking for something small . . . which also never really works.
I mean, did he miss anything? He got it all. And, somehow, he managed to do so without sounding pathetic. That’s saying a lot, seeing how a suicidal gunshot closes out his first album, Just As I Am.
As an adult, we’ve all stepped away from people we loved just because it had to be done, been dropped for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with love, and/or been treated outright badly by people we’d give the world to. Things just happen to end.
In the beginning, we’re all just rolling the dice on something that might work and get invested—against the odds and logic—in the idea that we’ve found something . . . knowing damn well that it could be unlikely.
And we do it again, because we have to and because there’s a lot of fun in it. Hey, people drink every weekend knowing the hangover is coming. They play it the same with their hearts. We humans . . . we’re interesting like that.
It’s hard to capture the optimism and cynicism of all of that in one place. That’s what Withers got on +‘Justments—like no one else I’ve ever heard.