"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" isn't a plea to save a love affair; it's Marvin Gaye's essay on salvaging the human spirit. The record distills four hundred years of paranoia and talking drum gossip into three minutes and fifteen seconds of anguished soul-searching. The proof's as readily accessible as your next unexpected encounter on the radio with the fretful, self-absorbed vocal that makes the record a lost continent of music and emotion.
How does something so familiar remain surprising for twenty years? To begin with, Gaye plays out the singing with his characteristic amalgam of power and elegance, sophistication and instinct: now hoarse, now soaring, sometimes spitting out imprecations with frightening clarity, sometimes almost chanting in pure street slang, sometimes pleading at the edge of incoherence, twisting, shortening, and elongating syllables to capture emotions words can't define. And Gaye does this not just in a line or two or three but continuously. As a result, a record that's of absolutely stereotypical length creates a world that seems to last forever.
"Grapevine" is also a triumph for producer Norman Whitfield. The music begins with an obsessively reiterated electric piano figure. Its churchy chords are followed with a plain backbeat off the drum kit and a rattlesnake tambourine, then a chopping guitar and soaring strings. So Whitfield creates a masterpiece before Gaye ever strangles a note. That ultrapercussive beat on the tambourine is the sound of the rumor reaching home; the rest of the record is about the consequences.
The welter of voices -- horns, female choruses, echo, bass-drum breakdowns over string arpeggios serves as a community of gossip. with the singer isolated but engulfed within it. Though he rails against the facts, he knows they have him trapped. What makes "Grapevine"'s most anguished lines -- "Losin' you would end my life, you see / Because you mean that much to me" -- so harrowing is that they come from the mouth of a man raised to believe in the literal fires of hell who now worships love. For Gaye, being cheated out of his lover is a sign of heavenly condemnation. So he lets his voice make a gospel leap for that first "you," then immediately brings it back into control, as if he's still struggling with how much she does mean to him.
The lyric as Gaye sings it is also an internal dialogue. In the first half of the record, as the singer grabs at the truth, it seems less likely that he's actually staging a confrontation than that he's imagining one, weighing the story he's heard against seemingly meaningless events that now assume the status of clues. By the middle verses, the shame and humiliation have overwhelmed him, and all that's left is "you coulda told me yo'self," a claim on the past that's meaningful only because of what isn't being delivered in the present. Then, we find out that his lover's not only left him, but that she sneaked off with "the other guy [she] loved before." From this moment through to the end, a good forty-five seconds (which is an epoch in the time scale of a three-minute single), Gaye accepts the truth and enters into mourning.
Even if that's how Whitfield and Strong conceived the lyric, it is the measure of the importance of records over songs that Gaye is the only singer who really gets to its heart. Gladys Knight, who had a hit with "Grapevine" in 1967, gave a journeyman rendition in which neither gossip nor grief seemed so significant. And the extended rock band workout Creedence Clearwater Revival gave the song in 1970, after Gaye's interpretation was already famous (and therefore seemed inevitable), is just overwrought; partly because it never catches a groove but mostly because it takes too seriously the implied voodoo rhythms, as if Detroit were New Orleans. Nevertheless, John Fogerty understood that "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was a work of art. And there's no shame in not improving on it. Neither could anybody else.