The Pop Song Pantheon, Vol. 2
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965)
Fitting, for a singer who once referred to the opera Pagliacci in a later hit, that he would contribute this heartbreaking soul aria to the pantheon. The thematic range that Smokey brings to his writing is limited, but potent, with the sad songs often falling into one of two categories: a regretful mea culpa ("Ooh, Baby Baby") or an acknowledgment of the pain that a heartbroken lover willfully masks and hides from the world (this tune, obviously, or "Tears of a Clown," which features the Pagliacci line). This tune begins slowly, with a mellow guitar statement and doo-wop intro, as Smokey lets us in on the narrative concisely: "People say I'm the life of the party / 'cause I tell a joke or two / Although I might be laughing out loud, honey / Deep inside, I'm blue." From there, it escalates into a full-scale anguished crescendo. The string arrangement on the chorus is expansive as our man cries for understanding. And by the time we reach the staccato hits of the bridge finale ("My. smile. is. my. make-up. I. wear. since. my. break-up. with. you) there's no doubting the immensity of his heartbreak. I can listen to this song ten or fifteen times in a row. Hell, I have.