Problem #1: this album is rendered obsolete with the existence of compilation Portrait of a Man 1951-1964 which contains six of Ain’t That Good News’ twelve songs.
Problem #2: like the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, perhaps the most famous example of this, Ain’t That Good News is structured such that its first side is its poppier, more spirited songs and its second side is its ballads. And like Tattoo You, this turns out to be a bad move; the second side is mostly a write-off excepting the obvious one. After “A Change is Gonna Come,” you’re immediately subjected to five songs (all of which are covers, no less) back-to-back that sound similarly orchestrated but without as much (or any) emotion to justify their existence. The stretch sounds ultimately lugubrious (though there is nothing wrong with any of them individually), that is, insincerely sad, despite the fact that Ain’t That Good News was almost all recorded after the death of his 18-month son, Vincent Cooke. Of those five songs, “The Riddle Song” is the best one (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering an almost explicit mention of his son), making use of lovely arpeggios and glistening background chords. Elsewhere, “Sittin’ in the Sun” commendably sounds like its title, albeit only briefly. Very, very briefly.
Comparatively, the first side is almost all good. A lot of critical praise around Sam Cooke stems from his singing, and indeed, he sings well; the way he shouts “that mar-va-LOUS!” in the climax of “Tennessee Waltz” is, well, marvelous. But don’t discount the arrangements: like the impossibly irresistible country shuffle of “Ain’t That Good News” to the same-note-three-time bursts of horns throughout that same track that get higher or lower to imitate the emotion that Cooke emulates. Then, there’s the double-tracking of Cooke’s vocals elevating the choruses of “Good Times.” Elsewhere, dig Hal Blaine’s drumrolls at the end of the choruses in “Another Saturday Night,” leading everyone back to the verse. “Another Saturday Night” is easily the second best song on the album; juxtaposition is created through the upbeat melody (supported by backing vocals in the choruses and horns in the verses) and the sadder theme (of a lonely Saturday night, which I’m sure everyone can relate to at some point or other in their lives). And Cooke wisely keeps it camp instead of sad; “Instead of being my deliverance, she had a strange deliverance to a cat named Frankenstein”; “I’d be swinging! Two chicks on my arm, ah, yeah!”
And of course, there’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Listen specifically to how Sam Cooke delivers “I go to the movie, and I go downtown” from 1:20 to 1:30, successfully communicating the pain even without needing the following line that gives the song context (“Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around”). It’s obvious what the song is about, but Cooke smartly leaves the entire thing rather ambiguous – there’s never any explicit mention of racism – such that the song will hold weight even if we ever manage to conquer racism. And again, the song is buttressed by its orchestral arrangement, the best of the album and maybe the best of Cooke’s career, all swirling strings, stirring horns and booming drums.
Though the webzine gets fire every day, I haven’t read a better description of the song than Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal (I’ve highlighted the most relevant bits): “Filtered through a vessel of honest hurt, message and moment meet modern gospel. Suffering from the recent death of his 18-month old son Vincent and troubled by the omnipotent specter of racism, Cooke caught the unsteady temperament of a nation. Struck by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the Mississippi native detected the folk movement’s crucial sense of understanding; they “may not sound as good but they people believe them more,” he once said. Sam Cooke sounds pretty great on “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Rosa Parks listened to “A Change Is Gonna Come” for comfort. The spiritual synergy between King’s preaching and the song’s painful vignettes is powerful. Both are battered, bruised but vigorous. Rene Hall’s classic arrangement, bolstered by French horns, timpani, and a flowering orchestra is pure Hollywood magic but Cooke subverts the Disneyland pomp with anguished realism: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky.” “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as part of a single only after Cooke’s murky murder. He never felt its rapturous reception. Yet, as long as change aches for resolution, the song will stand.”
Past generations who fought and lost against adversity and future generations given hope that they might win.