Leonard Cohen – Take This Waltz

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I remember this song quite well from its time of release, considering I was still a child. The lyrics are an adaptation of Lorca’s Little Viennese Waltz, and most of the imagery comes from there. Cohen makes the poem his own by adapting it to a rhythm and making it slightly more personal. The setup is the same, but Cohen’s version is making more connections between the images and the poet’s passion for the woman. I find this adaptation more enjoyable than Cohen’s other songs or poems, but it’s also better than the original poem, something that’s very difficult to pull off.

Lorca’s poems often feature the simultaneous presence of love and death, creating drama out of impermanence and unpredictability. We must dance now while it’s possible, for darkness is looming behind us, it’s all around us, the night is approaching. Just keep on dancing amid the garlands, through the crowd of onlookers, passers by.

The music is smooth as if there’s no care in the world, creating a bubble in which it’s safe to dance, even when the images imply the presence of poverty, infidelity, and death. In the end the waltz is everything. Does it mean that the dance is all that matters or that nothing else remains? The thought can be either romantic or terrifying. There’s love that is surrendering, love that is continuous support that lasts when everything falls, and there’s love that consumes everything it touches, taking over the world in a destructive way.

Similarly, when we think of the saying “Love conquers all,” it may mean that everything can be overcome and turned good by love, or it could mean that something we call love, an unhealthy obsession, dims the light of everything else around it until it seems there is no way out, nothing worthwhile in the world except this one thing we hold on to as the final hope.

Or maybe it’s a connection between love and movement. Let us keep moving through the night, holding each other even if nothing else is left. It is our hope in the darkness, gentle music of our mouths and fingertips, echoes around us. The contrast between Viennese dance halls and beggars on the roofs, the dancers and children playing in the attic. Let the music play as long as humanity lasts, for what else can we do? We must keep searching for something, that feeling present when holding each other, since in the end nothing remains, there will be only silence. The waltz that drags its feet, its tail, that dies in my arms and lives by this passion, not for the partner alone but existence itself.

Vera Lynn – Yours

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Commitment, dedication, promises. The song was originally written by the Cuban composer Gonzalo Roig in 1911, with lyrics written by him and his wife Blanca Becerra. Especially the Spanish version has become a standard, but even then it took about 20 years. I’ve always loved this version by Vera Lynn recorded, like most of her hits, during WW2.

Previously I wrote about the Momus song Rhetoric which has similar statements, trying to say “I will be eternally yours”, but phrasing it in such a way as if there was a condition in which love might end. Additionally there’s the idea that two people might be born to be with each other, a belief in destiny.

It is not important whether such a thing as destiny is real, or even could be. The emotion alone matters, and how love is such a strong impulse that it changes our thoughts, beliefs, our very being. It makes past disappointments insignificant, the present becomes fuzzy, permanent intoxication upon just seeing the beloved, and the future is suddenly certain, as if the universe itself had decided that this love must happen. Sure, one may think about it scientifically as a cocktail of hormones and the body trying to find a suitable mate, but what I’m interested in is the stuff of poems and paintings: the human experience, as unrealistic as it might be, as fanciful and inventive.

It is in the glory of the stars, in the birdsong, in the nights full of music, and when there is no music around, the notes still keep ringing. We hear them breathing together, sitting opposite each other drinking tea, or holding each other until the morning.

I have a fond memory of singing this song on a warm night while walking through some industrial park somewhere in New Zealand. “Here or on far distant shores”. I was not in a relationship at the time, but just thinking of love that transcends time and space is comforting, and how the thoughts may be with the beloved no matter what the distance is. There is time to be present, to focus completely on what is at hand. But can poets ever really do that, just to describe what is in front of us? Well, in a way. An important part of writing is observing things closely, being really present. But then to turn it into actual poetry or stories one has to sit down and remember, twist it through some viewpoint to make it interesting. In that way writing is also about displacement, thinking about things that are not here, things that have never been. Yet what a wonder it is, to be in love and to be relieved of the self-imposed duty to think of metaphors, and instead to reflect on the world with another soul, not just reflect images of beauty I happen to find in nature or in the city.

Jimi Tenor – Never Say It Aloud

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There’s a saying, originally in Arabic, that there are three things you cannot hide: love, smoke and a man riding a camel. Or in another version it’s pregnancy in place of smoke. Yet in reality people hide their love all the time quite successfully.

What is the “It” that is not said aloud? It could be anything you imagine, but clearly with the “uh-huh,” “baby baby baby” and “oh yeah” shenanigans going on in this song it’s got something to do with love or sexuality. Jimi Tenor has many songs balancing on this vaguely 70s aesthetic, taking the risk of sounding tacky. And it’s not just the lyrics, but the slow groove and breathy saxophone. Some may call it dreamy and others just cheesy. I’m going with the flow and enjoying it regardless. There are situations when one just has to stop being critical, forget what expressions of desire sound like when scrutinized closely.

There was a time when this style was a clear attempt at sexiness, but in the 90s, when this song was released, there would have been a more self-conscious attitude like this: “You know and I know that this may be ridiculous, but I’m doing it anyway”. Seduction becomes a performance in which the artificiality of the gestures, the cooing and crooning, becomes a sign of sincerity. In a world where emotions have to be presented raw, it’s refreshing to remember this kind of performance. Each “baby” becomes a quotation, but that may be the nature of seduction. The gestures have to be recognizable. Willingness to be silly. It may be true confidence, or recoursing to these tropes may be a crutch. Doesn’t matter, as long as the message gets across.

What is not said aloud may be expressed otherwise. It’s in the tone of voice, in the meaningless phrases, in the meandering sax, the bursts of flute notes descending to rest. This is exactly where I want to be, running my fingers through your hair, on your body, my lips on your neck, breathing in your scent. Nothing is truly hidden even when nothing is said. There’s time for directness, but when a certain direction has been established, when both know where they’re going, being indirect can increase the excitement. Frustration, yes, but not all tension is bad, especially when there’s anticipation of release, of the moment when there’s a chance to show everything, this longing for connection, the desire to be close to each other, holding on, swaying, whispering.

The song swirls around those hopes and promises, clinging to the moment when things are not yet happening, but it’s obvious that something is in the air. The moment when words are unnecessary, or almost so. I have time to wait, we know this is happening, and I’m going to enjoy this to its fullest extent, the slow ascent into affection. All the things that are special and unique, and in the end we will be together, even if we aren’t saying it now. Love and desire become sources of confidence, trusting oneself, trusting the future, trusting the possibility of dreams becoming reality, fully committing to this desire, forgetting self-consciousness, just riding on the waves of oohs and aahs, regardless of what it sounds like.

Momus – Rhetoric

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Floating, dreaming. The music bounces and flows at the same time, creating a sense of relaxed excitement. Contradictions inherent in falling in love. Anticipation, nervousness, eagerness, fear.

A Momus documentary states that this is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to write a love song. It’s fascinating that the song at the same time subverts the clichéd hyperboles of traditional love songs while still embracing them. There’s a sense of genuine feeling while still admitting that these phrases professing eternal love are glib and disingenuous.

The trick is in the contrast of unrealistic and realistic statements. Most declarations here sound meaningless because they’re never going to be tested, hence it’s just rhetoric. It’s easy to claim love will last until the end of time, until astronauts go walking on the sun. The fact that it’s never going to happen sounds reassuring, but listing impossible things would quickly become boring. It’s not difficult to come up with endless similar phrases, and in the end they amount to nothing, when in reality people broke up for petty reasons.

Yet there is cleverness in the hyperboles. In particular I like “till the melting clocks have chimed a melting hour,” probably referring to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and the phrase is just as surreal. What does it actually mean? Does it have to have a meaning? I don’t think so. It’s a love song, what do you expect?

And here come the contrasts: while they’re still declarations of lasting love, saying that “I’ll love you till the razorblades are held against my neck” or “you turn into a person I don’t know” are very well conceivable. These statements draw actual limits on love, something much closer than the end of the world. It makes the other statements look ridiculous, which is why this is tongue-in-cheek, showing the artificiality of love confessions while still saying that love is real. It’s just not usual in pop songs to say that there are limits to love, even if everybody knows it.

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but on the album Timelord this song, with its final line “I love you like the bee that dies, dies astride a queen” is followed by a song called Suicide Pact: “We were lovers – we made a suicide pact,” further bringing in some irony. The gentle followed by macabre. Not an uncommon theme in Momus oeuvre.

And still, the music is pleasant, and the repetitive phrases mean that if one is not attentively listening to everything, it’s easy to just go with the flow, embrace the feeling as a genuine declaration that doesn’t expose anything problematic in these songs. And maybe that’s what falling in love always entails, some forgetfulness of the myriad ways that relationships can go wrong, and how they do go awry around us. Just maybe not this time, not for us. May we find happiness that lasts till the world has stopped and time has lost its power.

Depeche Mode – One Caress

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More ambiguity. Dark music with minor and diminished chords, striking, dramatic strings strings, but a gently lilting, swaying melody in 12/8. Lyrics that are an appeal to a girl, yet with focus on darkness as salvation, whatever it is. It’s mostly the word darkness that makes the song mysterious, since it’s usually presented as a negative thing.

There is a religious aspect with talk of sin and how the girl’s darkness can somehow be redemptive. It’s the theme of the album Songs of Faith and Devotion, which is, as I’ve mentioned before, a reference to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and how he also blends the secular with religious love, although mostly on later albums.

The girl might not be an actual human being, but a symbol of something else, be it illicit substances or death itself. Where do we seek salvation? In the middle of desperation we can cling to anything, ultimately to the notion of death as an end. Or the song can be heard as some kind of vampire story.

It is not clear who is doing the seducing. The narrator is pleading, but it’s almost like he’s the one asking to be seduced, hoping for a solution when the world leaves him unimpressed. The caress of a beloved, the caress of death, it’s all conflated in this religious imagery. Yet the soft singing and the impassioned arrangement is seductive in itself.

I remember listening to this song in the dark when I was a teenager. At the time I often listened to music with the lights out. It was somehow comforting. But darkness with music is different from darkness without. With music you can focus on other people’s emotions, escape from reality. Without it you have to face the emptiness of the night, its vague feeling of threat, or then your own thoughts, emotions, and your own emptiness. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that, even when they say they love the dark.

It’s the darkness enhanced that’s seductive, a reduction. Mundane daytime phenomena are removed from the equation and it’s easier to see life to be simple. Perhaps that’s the true seductive notion, however we may pursue it. We’d like things to be simple, love and peace of mind to be attainable, and whatever object we attach to it, we call it a solution, salvation. That is what creates a sense of religiousness. Even the mundane becomes otherworldly when we ascribe such life-transforming powers to it. And to place such high hopes on a human being is inadvisable. It’s a burden to that person as much as oneself, even if it may sound somewhat flattering.

We may be saved by others, but they’re not saviors; their existence shouldn’t be defined solely by it. Even if we met some truly enlightened being who has limitless love, defining them as a savior means we’re already giving up on the notion of developing compassion for ourselves. Even better than compassion is the ability to inspire it in others. That kind of saving I’d hardly call darkness. But that’s just a label, as any description of comfort is bound to be symbolic. Darkness, light, green in blue. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Some people do thrive on it, trying to save one person, only to become darkness themselves. Mutual destruction, a whirl of despair, clinging to each other as the last hope in the world, and the more the two cling to darkness, the more hopeless the rest of the world seems. It might be better to just look outside for a while, find something else worth admiring. Holding only one thing dear sounds like a recipe for depression as well as its symptom. And when one loses the only thing that mattered, what then?

Well, maybe. Leonard Cohen: “Only one thing made him happy and now that it was gone everything made him happy.”

Blood Ruby – The Night Tide

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It’s not exactly a love song, but I choose to interpret it that way, because the lyrics don’t tell you how to feel. It’s a quality I enjoy in lyrics, how there are spaces where the listener can inject thoughts and feelings, fill in the story, make it their own. Ambiguity.

The lyrics are somewhat mysterious, creating a sense of definite place and a woman whose existence ebbs and flows like the sea. There are sighs in the lyrics as well as the music which is constantly swaying, swelling, receding, creating ripples. Everything that we lose over the years, everything that we love or dislike, whatever enters our little spheres, it comes and goes. Listen to the sound of the waves as you walk by the seaside. This is where you live, even when you’re not by the sea.

I love the idea of the sea, its vastness, the constant soothing swooshing, the foam, the crashing waves on the cliffs. I’ve lived in inland regions for most of my life, but some time after discovering this song I actually moved to a place where I could see the sea. It’s so much bigger than humans, and when you see the blur of the horizon you understand better how small we are. The sea, space and time, eternity, and there I am, a little speck standing on the sand. There may be inherent loneliness in discovering it, seeing it as the human condition, but the sigh also disappears and blends with the voice of the sea.

I remember this song from a specific time in my life when I was still wondering what to do, how to live, how to be, close to graduating from the uni and still having no clue about whether to follow my own feelings or do what is sensible. I had spent most of my time at the university alone, and at some point I remember listening to this song each night before I went to bed. It’s peaceful, and there’s a dreamy quality.

The female character sounds nice, someone to dream about on lonely nights, thinking of living by the sea, discovering seashells together, touching the waves, exploring the sensations. This was important, nothing else. Sensing, living, being present. So even though the song creates a solitary character, it can be thought of as a companion. Just hearing about someone who’d also like to touch the sea is enough: it banishes loneliness, because in a world where everyone is busy hunting jobs and rushing from one reward to another, it’s important to hear of people who are doing something else, walking where you wish to be, sighing where you would sigh. Even if it’s only in a song, you know that there are others like you dreaming and swaying, having the same rhythm in their footsteps.
There is little information on the band Blood Ruby, but according to the singer Cynthia Conrad’s CV it existed from 2001 to 2010. Remnants of their activity are buried here and there on the internet, most stating that “at this time” (which I think might be around 2008) they were recording their first album and were looking for a label to release it. As far as I can tell, they never released an official album, so this is distributed as a demo. It’s really a pity; they had some nice songs which were a part of my youth, which by now is also buried under time, under all those countless waves, memories gradually drifting farther, taken away by the night tide.

Al Stewart – A Small Fruit Song

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A minor key, some hesitation, melancholy, perhaps expectation. We are different. No matter how smooth the arpeggios, how we fit together like bursts of bluesy scale runs with strummed chords, there is always something we might not understand about each other. It makes us vulnerable.

But difference is also a source of excitement. I don’t always understand you, but that means there is always more to explore, as long as we don’t take each other for granted. We can talk about our fears and desires, but there is something ineffable. The truth is that we’re hardly aware of our own motivations, sometimes realizing years later that what we thought was rational was just feelings which had been rationalized through some strange logic. So we shouldn’t take each other for granted either.

To be kissed to the core, the warm flow of feelings, bodies close, minds closer. Perhaps it’s a dream of something hardly possible: to be known like no-one else has known us, at our most bare essence. Does such an essence even exist? Perhaps if I surrender I could find it with you. Then what? Maybe the consequences don’t matter, because it’s a dream that can never be perfected, an ideal toward which we can strive together, trying to open up to each other. We may skirt around it for an eternity.

The core, the essence, the soul, it may just be a fabrication of the flow of ever-changing thoughts. When I want to open up, what is it that I am revealing? Is it just emptiness trying to take some tangible form for a moment only to fade away when the attention goes away? Whatever it may be, it is a very basic desire, perhaps a need, to strive for: affection for something we may not even know well ourselves. Whatever I am, I desire acceptance, and wish you to be the one I let close like no other orange.

The lyrics are simple like a nursery rhyme, but that is why apples and oranges can be taken to some pretty far-off interpretations about difference. “Orange” is the woman who was the subject of many of Stewart’s early songs. The relationship didn’t end well, so hearing the minor chords here, and the use of past tense, seems like an anticipation of the stormy end. But that’s just hindsight.

A note on the music: Stewart is not always considered a part of the late 60s folk revival scene, but the influences are clearly there. Here the fingerpicking style is reminiscent of Bert Jansch. Stewart’s songs had a more pop-oriented approach later, but in the early songs the influence of Dylan and Fairport Convention can still be heard.

Jacques Brel – La Fanette

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A wistful story of an outsider, La Fanette sounds like an early attempt at what Brel did more dramatically with Ces gens-là. There is a similar rhythm, an unreliable narrator and the theme of not being accepted. Other details may be different, but Brel was very good with these kind of songs that explore rejection and hopelessness when you want to belong somewhere, cling to hope of love, only to be disappointed again.

The July beach initially is a place of hope, its emptiness a world of possibilities, the warmth and the lull of the sea bringing comfort. And the beloved is compared to nature in a Brelian fashion, this time she’s as beautiful as a pearl of water. I’m reminded of two things: in Ces gens-là Frida is beautiful as the sun, and in Ne me quitte pas the narrator is ready to offer his lover pearls made from rain that falls where it never rains. These simple images are very powerful. A pearl of water can either be rain or tears, or in this case also seawater. I especially like the double comparison. Drops of water are like pearls, which are something else, something desired, eternal, a symbol of affection and devotion.

He is holding her hand, so there is at some degree of mutuality in affection, although it’s not certain what kind of gesture it is for her.

How often do we cling to these metaphors and comparisons, only to find out that all the beauty of affection was based on an illusion in the first place? There was only hope, and hope was everything, and hope was beauty. Maybe it is all we have, and at times it is enough. But the very moment it is revealed to be just fantasy, the whole world crumbles and nothing is beautiful anymore. That is the danger of placing your dreams in emptiness. What happens when the projection of your desire has no more canvas? There is nothing, just the beach, the cold streets, and the sea that sings forever. We still return to our dreams and disappointments, even when it’s just waves washing the shores.

Alongside the sadness there’s a sinister mood. We don’t know what truly happened except that Fanette found someone else and they went away, swam far from the narrator. They haven’t been seen since, and then he suddenly asserts: let’s talk about something else. This little injection suggests that either he’s too emotional or that there’s something more to the story of lovers who swam too far, and Fanette’s voice that he still keeps hearing when the sea is still. Since Brel did this in other songs too, I think it’s intentional, ambiguity that could turn the song upside down if we think that the narrator had something to do with the disappearance. And that’s what’s wonderful about Brel’s style of lyricism, he can suggest two entirely different stories built from simple elements.