The Durutti Column’s “Otis”
“Otis” begins, as some of the best songs do, unexpectedly. A guitar string reverberates ever so briefly, first plucked and then bent, echoing forth a sharp, metallic twang. It sounds as though someone has pitched a pebble across a still body of water. A thick, pacing synth forms the ripples that slowly make their way to the shore.
In the late 1970s, lead guitarist Vini Reilly turned the Durutti Column into a largely solo project once the nascent Manchester-based band lost all other members shortly before recording what would’ve been their debut album. On the 1988 track “Otis,” Reilly plays the electric guitar as though following a helical trail, using the instrument as a means of introspection. But in following that road further inside himself, what he lands upon—what the song ends up sounding like, that is—is an incredible expanse.
I can’t help but hear nature when I listen to it, though the song’s two lyrical splices—borrowed from Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart” and the then-newly released track “Behind the Wall” by Tracy Chapman—would suggest that Reilly is thinking less about the verdant natural world and more about his private mental one. Those samples hint at a larger anguish. “Another sleepless night for me,” Chapman sings as the guitar picks up its meditative ambling, moving into the fret’s higher register. Following that lyrical admission, Reilly turns to Redding, whose plea, “Come back, come back,” repeats across the track’s middle.
Despite the woeful nature Reilly inserts by way of other voices, he plays his guitar as though reaching for a resolution to the looming anxiety that resonates from the song’s center. Whatever lost love has untethered him, giving way to sleepless nights and loaded supplications, the guitar’s phrasings suggest that he’s nearing some sort of peace. It moves between metered flurries and softer moments of exhalation. When Chapman’s voice returns to bookend the track’s musings, the pebble returns too. The synths quiet, leaving the guitar to cast more stones into the water before the final, echoing note warps slightly and fades. “Otis” conveys so much, despite saying so little.