Janet (j4) wrote,

Oh, god, this is some state I'm in

I forgot to bring any CDs into work with me today, so of course now I find myself desperately wanting to listen to all sorts of things. You know how sometimes you can half-remember the memory of a song-lyric, but you can't remember the song or the band or any of the words or the tune, just the shape of it and the way it made you feel? Or is that just me? Anyway, I had one of those today, and somehow convinced myself that it was something on Jackson Browne's album The Pretender, so I went to remind myself of the lyrics. I know the album really well and could probably tell you most of the lyrics off by heart anyway, but somehow when you're groping for something in your mind you keep looking past the bit you're actually trying to remember; it's always in one of the tiny gaps, the musical equivalents of down the backs of so(l)fas, the bits where you always slightly misremember the words at the end of one verse and as a result can never quite remember how you get to the next verse from there, so in your mind it's always just da da da da and then back into the words again with only a small hesitation like the one before you think of the next question to ask someone.

I didn't find my indistinct earworm, but I was reminded how the last two tracks on the album just knock me out every time. "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate" is so short, so perfectly constructed, so simple and so heartbreaking:
Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder
Where my life will lead me
Waiting to pass under
Sleep's dark and silent gate

I found my love too late
Running around day after day
Looking for the time to play
While my old friends slipped away

Never should have had to try so hard
To make a love work out, I guess
I don't know what love has got to do with happiness
But the times when we were happy
Were the times we never tried

Sitting down by the highway
Looking down the road
Waiting for a ride
I don't know where I've been
Wishing I could fly away
Don't know where I'm going
Wishing I could hide
Oh God this is some shape I'm in
When the only thing that makes me cry
Is the kindness in my baby's eye

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder
Where the years have gone
They have all passed under
Sleep's dark and silent gate
What you can't see from just the lyrics is the way the music works with them. I'd put the mp3 here if I had it to hand, but for now if you don't know it you'll have to trust me, or go and listen to it yourself.

The first verse is so simple: uncomplicated chords and a slight, falling melody; it's a melancholy sigh, nothing more. The next verse follows its lyrics so closely it's going to sound clumsy to you when I explain it, but trust me, when you hear it, it just works: "I found my love too late" lifts strongly and confidently on the first four words, then descends regretfully on the "too late"; then with the running round, the looking, the phrases rise and quicken and sound so hopeful, until the final inevitable slipping away. When you deconstruct it it ends up sounding like the musical equivalent of the sort of actions you make up to parody pop dance routines, it sounds like the my-hat-it-has-three-corners kind of mime; but there's no seams (or needlework), any more than you can see the join where a flower's scent complements its colour.

The next verse is a series of descents, resignation, only lifting a little on the last two lines. I guess it's a mirror of the previous one; a theme and variations on hope and despair, half full, half (running on) empty, half resigned and half falling apart. No wonder people feel like they're breaking into pieces when they're split into so many halves. But it's the "Sitting down by the highway" bit where the lyrics on their own don't do justice to the way they're sung; they're overlapping, counterpoints to each other, talking over each other, all the voices coming in and telling you that you were right, that you were wrong, that in the end it doesn't matter any more, and the line that cuts through this flurry of thoughts, musically clear and yet so helpless, is "Oh, god, this is some state I'm in..."

The simplicity of the last verse can't redeem all that hopeless loss and confusion, can't change the past, can't bring someone back when they're gone; it's a near-mirror of the first, but now the floodgates have opened, so that changing just five words of a refrain can bring all the weight of time and our own mortality rushing in.

I always feel as though I've cried after hearing it, even when I haven't, and then there's only a short gap before the final song on the album. "The Pretender" feels musically simpler, even though it's just one long ache for something you can't find, something you can't even identify, and you're left not knowing if you've found it or not. Somehow it comes down on the side of hope, for me at least, but it's the sort of hope that makes you cry anyway. I'm not going to go through that one line by line, just go and listen to it.

I listened to this album so many times in my first year at Oxford, playing my taped copy again and again, not needing to check the track listing (pencilled on the inlay in my dad's distinctive italic capitals which I've only recently realised that I seem to have adopted myself), hearing the same songs come round and round over the course of an all-night essay crisis as the hours of sleeplessness piled up outside the window and the door, seeping in through the cracks, stifling all sounds and air from without; from the quiet and dark opening chords of "The Fuse", the first track on the album, through the lines from "Your Bright Baby Blues" that still seem to sum up my life:
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me
No matter where I am
I can't help feeling I'm just a day away
From where I want to be
(and whether I choose to remember the next lines or not depends on my mood) ... all the way to the repeat-till-fade "say a prayer for the Pretender". I think a bit of the darkness outside my room and the hopelessness inside leached into the album and changed its colours for me, but at the same time some of its hope drained out, and sometimes I used to think that this was the last word on what I wanted from life:
I'm going to find myself a girl
Who can show me what laughter means
And we'll fill in the missing colors
In each other's paint-by-number dreams
And then we'll put out dark glasses on
And we'll make love until our strength is gone
And when the morning light comes streaming in
We'll get up and do it again
and I still get a lump in my throat at the thought of it, the sweet sadness of all those scattered wishes, the tumbling and stumbling "and, and, and" of the sort of dream where you're just running and running as if you could wake up and fly.

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