The love songs that closed out the 20th century tended to be a blinders-off gritty assessment of the emotion, as if love were a competition or an exhausting (and sometimes ugly) long-distance race. Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" comes immediately to mind, or the creepy undercurrent to the Police's "Every Breath You Take," which raises obsessive paranoia to the level of art. Even the apparent joyous infectiousness of one of 2003's most popular songs, OutKast's "Hey Ya," actually explores the divisiveness of love and the difficulty in keeping two people together, even as its funky, bubbling rhythm pulls couples to the dancefloor.
All of which makes Romantic Standards: The Great American Love Songs, a collection of love songs from America's golden age of melody, so startling when you really listen in to what is being said.
Love, instead of being a challenge, is a wistful dream to cling to, an aspiration for a better life, a star you pin your hopes to, so when Lee Wiley sings Ira and George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" here (backed by Eddie Condon and His Band), it carries none of the edginess and suffocating feel of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," but addresses the same drive to always be around the one you love, not as a dangerous delusion, but as something that brings comfort and safety.
One could argue that the nature of love and of being in love hasn't changed in all these years, and undoubtedly the pros and cons of the emotion and what it means to our lives is still what it has always been, a way to define who we are -- at our best and at our worst -- with other people. You can't help but wonder, though, after listening to the songs on this collection, most of them from the 1930s and 1940s, where has all our hope gone? On the other hand, the only song here that even hints at sex is Kay Starr's "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)," and it ends up being the track that comes closest to being a contemporary love song. What does all this say about our approaches to love? No clue. But if you're having a romantic dinner with the one you love, this disc will probably sound wonderful in the background, while "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" probably won't.