Jacques Brel – La chanson des vieux amants

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Growing up in an age of doubt and indifference I felt that Brel was a breath of fresh air in his unabashed romanticism. Many of his songs deal with love, but it’s not the idealized version, but something that seems more real, heartbreaking even when it is passionate. Feelings of inferiority abound in many of his songs, as well as infidelity and strange masochism. And yet there is always this feeling that love can conquer all, because it is such a great force that it slices through any obstacle.

La chanson des vieux amants, the song of old lovers. is just as much about the passage of time as it is about love. What changes, what remains the same. There is beautiful melancholy in thinking back on the storms survived, and the decisions to stay together despite them, or maybe even because of them, each solution found bringing a renewed sense of unity. Brel sings of the room without a crib, in an offhand way referring to how childlessness might have affected them. Also mentioned are the infidelities, and how the man “lost the taste for conquest” which apparently once seemed essential. Yet the love goes on, transforming with time. The song implies that love is something fluid, as the passion and the pain, the conquest and surrendering that have constituted its essence, now are something different.

So time has revealed that it was not an essence at all, not something unchanging and ineluctable. The music and the delivery convey an idea that it was always fragile, and that may because of the realization that our ideas of love are not set in stone, and hence the relationship itself is always fragile. Yet the refrain is a consolation. No matter what has happened, the belief remains. There is faith in both love and the other person, the two perhaps becoming inseparable as time goes on.

Perhaps it is the flaws of the relationship that make the hope in the song so touching. There is a feeling that the relationship hasn’t exactly been a healthy one, and yet by strength of feeling or sheer stubbornness they’ve persisted. It is romanticism born not ouf of an ideal of happily ever after, but out of the notion that despite the unhappy moments two people can still make it work out and even find peace and solace. What remains in the end is just the confession, I love you, after all the things we’ve been through, nothing else really matters. It gives hope that no matter what the problems might be, this may be the cynosure guiding the two people home, to their shelter, even when it’s crooked, roof leaking and the wind wailing in the corners of the room.

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You

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An impassioned confession if I ever heard one, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You sounds fresh and attractive when its lyrics make me wonder what is the difference between the universal and the banal. When it comes to emotions, the difference is highly subjective, which is in a way ironic: what we consider universal is still subjective. Certainly “I love you baby” isn’t the most original line, but in the song’s context it sounds heartfelt and genuine, thanks to Frankie Valli’s delivery and the sound of the orchestra.

In addition to vocals, the composition and arrangement play a huge part in making this a classic. There is constant tension created with the use of triplets and borrowed chords, namely inserting parallel minor chords after major. Also notable is the rhythm section, how it creates tension with the dotted notes in the bass and the well-placed snare hits in the verses. Even when the melody is staying in one place, these compositional tricks make the music interesting, particularly in the booming brass before the chorus.

And what about the lyrics? Well, there is another source of tension, that between the confidence of the chorus and the fragility in the verses, the certainty of one’s own feelings and the slight disbelief in the reality of the situation. It is appealing because love is the engine and the motivation for most people, yet seems rare. Among all the people we meet, only a few turn out to be compatible, and yet when love becomes real, it seems instinctive, flowing with ease. It is a sudden realization that seems like a miracle, too good to be true.

But of course the rarity of love is also just another perspective, a prejudice and the romantic notion that rejects the whole of humanity in the thought that this one person among all the people in the world is unique. Yet the differences that people have, especially among those growing up in the same culture, as actually very small. All guinea pigs are cute, but looking at our peers we see endless variations and emphasize small differences, discerning attractive and unattractive qualities, thereby determining who is supposedly compatible.

Meanwhile there is nothing else to do but wait, wait for the permission to stare, the permission to share all the pent-up feelings of affection and desire. When it actually does happen, let the horns play, let the drums boom, the chest swell with pride and passion. It is real, it always was, and that is the most exhilarating realization of all that transforms the whole world, the past and the future, this one moment in the present, a touch, a gaze. It’s quite alright.

Al Stewart – I’m Falling

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I was 17 when I first visited London, and I distinctly recall buying Orange, the album which included this song, on that trip. It was in an HMV store among a plethora of other albums I wanted to buy, back when it was much more possible than today to just go to a record shop and find things that most people haven’t heard of. I also remember the innocent energy being there with friends, climbing lamp posts and finding delight in smelling black pepper.

And partly I associate that innocence also with this song, which just might be the most romantic one among Stewart’s repertoire. It is full of anticipation, and while it was probably written in an already established relationship, I also remember it as a symbol of early infatuation, that time when everything seems possible, love is an experience of being healed, a feeling of hope and fulfilment.

There is a clear sense of time and place, images that convey leisurely existence with nowhere to go, no obligations, only the sense of burgeoning affection. It is appealing because of the sense that very little is moving, yet emotionally there is a direction, falling in love, gradually moving toward understanding and intimacy. The world is moving in one direction, but it barely affects the lovers who are making tea and having biscuits, getting to know each other, somehow aware of jobs or people going to movies. It always struck me as a lovely image, and experiencing the feeling oneself for the first time is very memorable. It’s as if nothing truly exists except this bubble of tenderness.

Yet time keeps passing. It is Sunday afternoon turning into evening, and the lovers are aware of Monday morning, and the temptation to not go to work the next day. But perhaps it is this awareness of the limits of this freedom that gives it such a special hue, makes it possible to concentrate on the senses, being present just for each other. Awareness time can either make us live in the moment ever more fully, holding on to each sensation, or it can make us perpetually absent, always living for the future that never arrives, always planning ahead, thinking of what could be instead of what is.

The song is an exploration of the present within that context, the preciousness of each second spent together while it’s still possible, gentle hands, the gentleness of light inside while the night is falling. When it is possible to live like that, fully in the moment, sharing the sensations with someone who wants just as much to be there, to open up to that intimacy, there’s really nothing else to wish for. How nourishing the light can be, the touching fingers. The endless waves that keep crashing to the shore, the undulation of time itself. The afternoon tea, the conversations, the presence, the sleep, all rolling together to form this wonderful bubble.

Sergio Cammariere – Tutto quello che un uomo

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A song of dependence and surrendering, romanticism that borders on unhealthy obsession. The message of the song is concentrated on the line “Senza te io non vivo”: without you I don’t live. It doesn’t sound like a good ideal, yet in the throes of emerging love, as well as in parting, it may feel precisely like that. It may not sound healthy, it induces suffering, and yet at the time it also feels good. It’s the temptation and danger of romanticism, which oozes in the melancholy nature of the tune and the soft jazz of the arrangement.

This is the kind of surrendering that some people find extremely threatening to their ego, so much so that they’d rather avoid commitment altogether than face the possibility of disappearing. In love one may start to forget the sense of self, which is both great liberation as well as an existential threat. In the end, if love survives, two new people emerge from the ordeal, stronger in their connection, retaining the sense of self, but now altered by commitment.

Yet the risk of disappointment is more real than the risk of disappearance. The true personality always pushes through and emerges from the momentary feeling of melting together. In the song the world appears anew, something discovered in its essence, not a world to be conquered but one receiving its meaning from being close to a woman, and a man’s willingness to do anything to reach that fulfillment. The chance of disappointment is present in the idea that the narrator can’t breathe without her. It sounds wistful, as if there’s also resignation. Whatever happens, this is the lot of a man in love

It’s possibly to deny this position, to say that true love isn’t like that, it isn’t a threat to one’s existence, it doesn’t require surrendering like that. But neither can it be denied, this experience of love’s essence in the control we gain by losing control, the freedom in abandoning oneself for the sake of a partner. It captures the mystery of love, the ecstasy in what is terrifying. And while I don’t wholeheartedly recommend taking such an attitude, I also think there’s not enough of these descriptions in pop music today. Perhaps artists don’t want to appear too sentimental, or maybe it’s just this age that prioritizes the feeling of independence and defiance. Surely there’s a place for criticizing the totalizing aspect of romantic love.

And yet how good it can feel, how fulfilling, how complete one feels in this act of disappearance. It does not feel right to dismiss the experience altogether as something unhealthy or unnecessary. Love requires willingness to throw away attitudes that seem reasonable, even if just for a moment, because otherwise we can’t stand the risk of losing our carefully constructed identities.

And personally, no matter how things have ended up, I’ve always found that the risk was worth taking, because even after heartbreaks the self that emerges after experiencing love is all the more stronger after the chance to surrender and the newfound ability to see our own limits, how after all nothing is the end of the self, not the parting, not the union of two hearts open to affection.