In 1982, Nina Simone was living alone in a small apartment in Paris, playing a nearby nightclub for a couple hundred dollars a night. The “Empress of Soul,” one of the most gifted musicians and dynamic humans to grace the cosmos, was not just playing to “feel that I’ll survive,” as she sings on the opening salvo on her album Fodder on My Wings, released that year, but playing to survive: financially, psychologically, physically and spiritually.
Fodder, which receives its first large-scale distribution and re-release this year, is a definite product of that time, but it is also a terrifying, intimate work of autobiography. In the title track alone, Simone moves from soothing African prayer music to Baroque and pseudo-prog rock ornamentation to a mournful gospel-blues lyrical observance. It is stupefying to hear Simone, her voice as sharp and warm as ever, cry out over the “dust inside her brains,” creating an uncomfortably clear window into her soul.
The sonic banquet of “Fodder on My Wings” reflects the rest of the album, of which all but one song is composed by Simone. It’s as if she poured every musical idea or influence from the past 10 years—as well as all her grief, joy, and rage—into these 13 songs. She plays simple, moving chants in French; recalls the fond memories and infectious sounds of her life in Liberia on “Liberian Calypso”; and transforms Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” into a chilling, condensed history of her relationship with her father.
The original 1982 LP ended with “Le people en Suisse,” a smoky, chilling noir; now that song is followed by four more, starting with “Heaven Belongs to You.” An ecstatic chant sung in English and French, it’s Simone’s balm for the soul, a prayer for herself and the world.