Pop Imperfection: Every Rose has its Thorn?

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” – Jack Gilbert

In the three minutes or so of the average pop song, there is ample opportunity for mistakes. Large mistakes in lyrics or instrumentation make some songs seem like bad ideas from the start. Single strange points can be repeated ad nauseam to undermine otherwise effective pieces.

At times, choices that seem terrible and jarring can be repeated enough to wear the listener down, to bully into submission. (Rihanna’s repeated “ella” in “Umbrella” was initially so offensive to me that I tried to turn the radio off every time it came on. My wife made me leave the song on. I can now listen and appreciate the song—even if I still don’t like it.)

But, every once and a while, a song that is otherwise good has one moment in it that ruins the whole thing—a grain of sand in the vaseline. Now, one could argue that slight imperfections only bring out the beauty of their surroundings. And, it must be admitted, it is nearly impossible to come up with an idea of aesthetics that is not built on some system of contrast. (What is sweet without bitter or warm without cold?) But, it is a damn shame when one small moment, a mere five seconds out of 180, undermines everything around it.

The artist Bright Eyes is a perfect symbol of the post-Alt-rock Indie generation; he is almost as well a representation of his demographic as well.  Anyone who reads his interviews or investigates his biography will be struck by the combination of brilliance, neuroses and timeliness that his public persona exudes. If he has a significant flaw as a musician, it may be that he records too much and thereby waters down what might otherwise be pure brilliance.

(Aside: I once argued (in both directions) about whether or not Connor Oberst is his generation’s Bob Dylan. The argument is, of course, nonsense. Bob Dylan is unrepeatable. Too many facets of his “Bob Dylan-ness” are connected to his era to make any analogies at all. That said, Oberst is also a gifted and prolific song-writer who straddles different genres but, arguably, over-reaches and undermines his own art.)

The sixth track on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, “First Day of My Life,” is one of the most striking folk songs I have heard in years. The finger-picking progression, the melody and the message could have come out of John Prine, Nick Drake or Bob Dylan. But, like the almost perfect diamond with the visible flaw, it presents one problem.

The problem is a big one. And it comes in the lyrics. The song starts out well. The first verse establishes coherent themes. The main metaphor of connecting the singer’s life to his addressee slowly unfolds as Oberst sings:

This is the first day of my life
I swear I was born right in the doorway
I went out in the rain suddenly everything changed
They’re spreading blankets on the beach

(Apart from the uncertain image of the last line, this opening is pitch-perfect.) This beginning is wide open—Oberst’s audience doesn’t know what the heart of the song will be until the second part of the verse when he sings “Yours is the first face that I saw / I think I was blind before I met you / Now I don’t know where I am / I don’t know where I’ve been / But I know where I want to go”. Oberst’s rebirth has now been transformed into a sweet yet serious expression of love.

The second verse takes interesting turns: Oberst asks his addressee to “Remember the time you drove all night / Just to meet me in the morning”, a moment when she/he confessed to a similar re-genesis. Now, we learn, it was the addressee who first said “this is the first day of my life / I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you”. This repetition of the opening line is effective, almost breath-taking. The inversion is effective and anticipates the mirrored nature of love. Years after listening to this song for the first time, the maudlin side of me comes out every time I hear these lines.

The tears, however, cannot fall because of what happens next. After the singer declares that they could be anywhere and be happy, the romantic idealism of the song is shattered. During the first 2/3 of the song both members of the couple have been reborn through epiphanies; in the final moments, the singer (or the addressee still?) expresses uncertainty (“With these things there’s no telling / We just have to wait and see”). This uncertain begs the question—should we or shouldn’t we?

The question is answered through the metaphor that tears the song down. The singer makes the decision to commit to this rejuvenating relationship because “But I’d rather be working for a paycheck /than waiting to win the lottery”. The relationship that was so powerful that it made the singer and his lover born again is now merely a weekly paycheck as compared to a once-in-a-lifetime payday?

(Now, all of my concerns can be avoided if you argue that these lines aren’t that bad. It is possible, if you choose one of the interpretations below, to see the metaphor as brilliantly apt. Compared to what comes before, the metaphor seems to me to be forced and hollow.)

There are interpretations that can assuage this dissonance. Perhaps this is the addressee’s sentiment and the song is meant to illustrate the gulf of understanding between lovers. Or, perhaps, this sentiment, as banal as it is, is a clever reflection on the inconsistent nature of passion or the fleeting truths of love’s epiphanies. Maybe the lyrics are even more clever than that: perhaps, by undermining the earlier sentiments, the equation of “simple paycheck” = “life changing passion” is meant again to indicate gaps in our perception of selves, others and our own lives.

Or, maybe Bright Eyes is playing tricks on us: perhaps he sets us up with romantic ideas and then brings us crashing down with a real-world wake up call. Life does not reside in romance alone; relationships are not strings of passionate epiphanies, they are real work. From this perspective, the concluding dissonance is instructive.

But, despite these possibilities, I am not convinced that this isn’t just a bad line. I can make all of the circular, clever arguments I want to, but it doesn’t change the fact that the everydayness of this line contrasts with the romantic idealism, the nearly worshipful love of the rest of the song. Is the contrast intended? If so, it may be more complex than pop typically is. If it isn’t, then it is a mistake. It makes a great song merely good; it dampens the sublime.

But, again, such a judgment speaks more about the critic than about the song. Of course, since part of me is still a hopeless and hapless romantic, I get suckered in by the naivete and the directness of the first part of the song. The sudden change, while perhaps true to life (or maybe because it is true to life) is a disappointing betrayal of my willingness to fall in love along with the song. Maybe I am the sucker a diabolical Oberst is looking for.

And you, brother? Does my complaint make any sense? Have I failed to be  benevolent enough listener?
Have you ever loved a song with a fatal flaw?

A youtube cover with some nice vocal phrasing:

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