Four months after Bill Withers hit number one with “Lean on Me,” Johnny Nash climbed to the top of the charts with the rocksteady/reggae pop of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Unlike Withers, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, Nash had maintained a fairly solid chart presence since 1957, and by November 1972, at the age of 32, he was also a seasoned veteran of the biz side of the music biz, creating his own label and signing pop acts like the Cowsills. He traveled to Jamaica in the late ’60s in an attempt to bring rocksteady to the U.S., for a time working with Bob Marley and the Wailers. In a sense the sessions weren’t successful, illustrating the difference between Nash’s American AM-radio “hit” perspective and the maturing album-oriented FM-radio vision that Marley, and Chris Blackwell of Island Records, had for reggae. And yet the association was significant for both Nash and Marley, taking them to London in early 1972 in an attempt to break reggae outside of Jamaica. It was in England that Nash recorded his best album — relying heavily on Marley’s songwriting and the musicians that made up the Wailers and the Fabulous Five — and where Marley and the Wailers would meet Blackwell.
It’s hard to imagine a greater musical uplift than “I Can See Clearly Now.” With that title and the refrain “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day,” there’s more than a hint of Nash’s commercial reach, but he was clearly inspired by his work with Marley: the tune’s simple reggae backing and the sincerity of the performance saves it from the treacly precipice. When the bridge — itself a grand gesture — gets keyboardy and spacey it feels like there must have been something going on in the studio to fit the song, with its monumental groove and smile diminishing whatever adversity might be at hand. This is a song about happiness in the moment, the rain lifting, and seeing the obstacles for what they are.