As I said in my introductory essay to Casanova, this is an extraordinarily long-feeling album because of the way it’s organized into mini-suites, and with “A Woman of the World” we come to the third song of the middle suite, the section I characterize as most representative of classic DC (“Songs of Love” –> “The Frog Princess” –> “A Woman of the World”).
The song also showcases one of my favorite vocal performances of Neil’s. He uses every part of his range here, like a Plains Indian resourcefully making use of every part of a buffalo: there’s the straight-ahead narrator, the conversational/spoken-word chattiness, the heavily affected faux-crooner, and, of course, the shredded belt. It’s such a casual tour de force, which is, in some ways, all the more unexpected coming in this often overlooked song in the DC catalog.
Also, the arrangement shows Neil’s genius in this period for undermining his own orchestral impulses. The song is obviously built to resemble a big, brassy, Broadway showstopper, but the sonic balance is always kept in check with some little oddball touch. It starts off with the watery phasing of the electric piano on the introduction (which makes a subtly witty segue out of “The Frog Princess”). Then, when the baritone sax is bopping along, it’s equalized like crazy so that it’s as trebly as possible. When Neil’s vocals are affected and arch in the bridge section, the strings are rich and warm. When the brass is swinging, it’s processed to feel canned and tinny. The overall effect is ingeniously two-dimensional–it’s like aural art deco, like the musical equivalent of the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s cover or an early New Yorker. There’s a sense of humor to it, but this aesthetic choice also reflects the tawdry glamor of the Holly Golightly character. It’s 100% the right impulse.
There’s also a fascinating mingling of violence (“maybe I’ll kill her, just trying to thrill her / if she don’t kill me first”) with half-entertained notions of performing femininity (“I’m jealous of her–she’s a woman of the world,” “maybe I need her because I want to be her–baby, can I be your girl?”). It’s easiest to categorize these lyrics as a general nod to Truman Capote’s homosexuality (as well as the unspoken gayness of the novella’s unnamed narrator), but I’ve always preferred to take it one step further and hear it as a more undefinable exploration of gender fluidity. (Nothing sexier than an otherwise hetero guy asking, “baby, can I be your girl?”) This is courageous but necessary, as it allows Casanova to continue cataloging as many different iterations of late-20th century sexual expression as possible, which Neil continues to expand in “Through a Long and Sleepless Night.”
And, as a sauce to how wonderful this song is on its own merits, it’s always made more wonderful when I think of listening to it while driving down Route 41 with Casey, on our way to a family friends’ lake house, in late summer 2000 after my return from London. I was so excited to share this new music with my besties, hoping they’d hear all the same intelligence and exuberance that I heard in it.