This statement could gesture more at ignorance than truth, but anyhow, not many songs about loss are written from a place of the acceptance. There’s fury, there’s sorrow, there’s disbelief, but you’d be hard-pressed to name a cut that pays homage with the same simple sweetness of the Commodores’ “Nightshift.”
The 80s funk ‘n’ soul outfit’s only hit after Lionel Richie’s departure from the group, “Nightshift” could work no matter what it’s about – sing the phonebook to “Nightshift,” and you have a jam on your hands, providing you’re blessed with the honeyed luster of J.D. Nichols’ vocal chords. But beneath the multi-part harmonies, “Nightshift” is an understated farewell, equal parts paean and eulogy.
The Commodores relax into their tribute, which builds patiently to a major key (and low-key, danceable) crescendo while shouting out the dearly departed: in this case, friends and fellow musicians Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom passed away suddenly the year prior (respectively: 45, domestic dispute; 49, heart attack).
The Commodores’ mourning is frictionless, unimpeded by the typical emotional snags of grieving. Buoyed by an implacable faith in the comfort and company of the titular and metaphorical nightshift—“I know you’re not alone / on the nightshift… gonna be some sweet sounds coming down / on the nightshift”—the backing vocals take on the psychospiritual properties of a gospel choir, echoing and reaffirming its positive momentum. Gonna be a long night, gonna be alright.
But remarkably, while the Commodores thank and admire Gaye and Wilson, they do not linger. Gaye and Wilson each earn a succinct, though sincere, stanza, and are ushered on to their place in the great beyond. This restraint is part of what makes the song so remarkable: As an upbeat (if slow-burning) pop ditty, it contrasts sharply with the urgent, gnarled marathons of grief that death so often inspires.
Part of its tenderness also resides in the unvarnished sentimentality of the members of the Commodores towards their friends. Though the body of songs about death be fat and sleek, male homosociality rarely results in anthems. With “Nightshift,” the Commodores acknowledge the gifts of such a friendship: “Marvin sang of the joy and pain / He opened up our minds…”
There is no shame or reservation in giving these friendships their due; no tough guy act; no flimsy shield of pretense or irony. Without this emotional tenor, the song couldn’t land. “Nightshift” feels like a hug. “Nightshift” forbids the indulgence of drowning in nostalgia, because the subjects exist in perpetuity, in memory, on the nightshift. And to cite Mary Oliver, when the time comes to let go, “Nightshift” lets go.
Charlotte Murtishaw is an American.