Joaquin Sabina, “Y Sin Embargo” from Yo, Mi, Me, Contigo (1996): One Track Mind

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He started his career by throwing a Molotov cocktail at a government building. This happened during the student protests against Franco’s fascist government in early-1970s Madrid. Fearing persecution, Joaquin Sabina then fled to London, returning a few years later to celebrate the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Yet, the revolutionary strain never wholly left Joaquin Sabina: His music is as subversive and explosive, even in his love ballads, as were his politics.

Coming to Sabina’s records from the American pop and rock tradition, it’s impossible to overlook his debt to the great literary songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s. His style is strongly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. He shares the latter’s commanding voice, bent for colloquial poetry, and hard-earned wisdom. This is not to say Sabina is a Spanish Dylan, however. He blends his many influences, which include Spanish poetry and Latin-American music, with a musical and literary sensibility all his own.

One of his greatest songs is the beautiful but cruel love song “Y Sin Embargo,” which appeared on 1996’s Yo, Mi, Me, Contigo. The intro music suggests a gentle ballad of love and longing, as does the first line, with the singer declaring he’d lay down his whole life for his lover. And yet, next thing we know, he tells that he’d cheat on her with anyone; he’d exchange her for anyone without a sense of regret.

The song’s beauty is that this tension between faithlessness and love is never resolved. The verses keep telling of the singer’s troubled relations with other women, while the succeeding refrains repeat his declarations of love with more exuberant poetry each time around. Towards the end Joaquin Sabina sings:

Porque una casa sin ti es una oficina (Because a home without you is an office)
Un teléfono ardiendo en la cabina (a telephone blazing in the booth)
Una palmera en el museo de cera (a palm tree in the wax museum)
Un exódo de oscuras golondrinas (a dark exodus of swallows)

The mysterious ways of love are not simplified by a straightforward conclusion. They remain to the end where, with a final touch of genius, the song fades out not during a repeat of the chorus but during a new variation. We strain our ears to hear the end of the story, but it merely returns us to the beginning: over Monday breakfast the lovers’ “cold war” returns and the cycle starts again.

Though it’s only one song from a long and varied career, “Y Sin Embargo” is as good an introduction as any to Joaquin Sabina’s music: a subversive love ballad that’s at once tender and cruelly unforgiving.

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