Lyrics, poetry and fiction help me deal with feelings. Trauma causes a scramble for meaning. If it's major trauma, the scramble is maybe more desperate. But I'm not unique and others have been through similar events. They've had the chance to reflect on their experience and funnel it into songs, poems, novels, and nonfiction. This is helpful in two ways: it is reassuring that others have felt the same things as me, and it provides a guide of sorts to the different perspectives I can take on these feelings. Art might even help nudge me towards the 'right' perspective. The numbers have to be fudged a little, since the details of what I go through and of what others go through are never exactly the same, but the balm still works.
With that in mind I'd like to look at Pianos Become the Teeth's The Lack Long After. The lyrics are about father dying from multiple sclerosis, and they show us something about grief.
"I couldn't wrap my fingers around your spine and shake it loose from the bone" -'Spine'
Musically and lyrically, the album climaxes in the first two minutes of 'Spine'. The drums howl and then it's off. Kyle Durfey screams throughout the album, but here his yelling hits a particular intensity. The lyrics are consistently angry, uncomfortable and distraught, but they peak peak with the image of a son shaking his father's spine from his body. They touch on the event itself: his father's death. With the song's last howls of "goodbye", some sort of closure seems to be reached.
Heat recurs in the lyrics, and it boils over in the first two minutes of 'Spine'. The album is obsessed with fire and warmth or the lack thereof:
- "There's no proper way to feel, no mirth, no levity, no amazing grace, just a flame on a lake, floating away" -'I'll Get By'
- "This damn body can't keep the warmth in" -'Good Times'
- "You . . . set fire to my face" -'Shared Bodies'
- "A face like water frozen over" -'Such Confidence'
Temperature ties the songs together. 'Such Confidence' has a face that's frozen over; in 'Shared Bodies' the face has been thawed, set aflame by passion. The song that veers away from grief to talk about love and sex is still woven through with grief. Death seeps in. "Spine" is, literally and metaphorically, the climax of the album: not only does it describe the day of the death, but also mentions of heat skyrocket: "I never set fire to your bed, I never burnt the bed sores, I never ate the flame, or drank the sweat."
The album is 38 minutes long and "Spine" starts at the 24-minute mark, about two thirds of the way through. Usually, a story's climax hits at the end, followed only by a brief denouement. The Lack Long After, on the other hand, is shaped like a triangle. Peak intensity hits at the halfway point, the build-up is not significantly larger than the drain-off. What's going on here?
In my experience, one of grief's cruelties is the illusion of closure. I'll have a good day and assume the mood will last. I think I've figured it out, that the perspective I've taken is the right one and that my feelings have settled into their proper places. It feels like finding the key to the door I've been struggling to bash my head through for months. Good days feel revelatory. But then the sadness recurs. And this process happens over and over.
Each song here is fierce and frantic. Each song has a satisfying internal structure, a tension and a release, a build up and a climax. Each song is grief-stricken, and each song fights through the grief and ends with a bang. But then the next song starts, still fierce, still frantic, still stricken with the same grief. There is closure in each song's finale, but taken in the context of the album, where the next song is still struggling through the same struggle, the closure is illusory. Listening to The Lack Long After is an experience of grief, a second-hand trip through the mirage of figuring things out.
"It's a hell of a thing" -'I'll Get By'
So if figuring things out is a lie, what do we get instead? Not much. Or, not much that's concrete. The last song is 'I'll Get By' and it's last words are 'It's a hell of a thing'. The album ends expressing intense feeling, but 'thing' is about as vague of a noun as you can get. 'Hell' is negative. To sum up grief, the lyrics offer us only that it's intense, negative, and difficult to put into words.
"I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down." -Karen Green
Karen Green is David Foster Wallace's widow. In 2008, he hung himself. She wrote a book of poems called Bough Down. Her words, like Kyle's, are simple, a paradoxical blend of abstract and matter-of-fact. They keep some things hidden while also revealing horrifying ferocity of feeling. Both write in second-person, addressing the lost. Karen highlights what might otherwise go unmentioned, like the disposal of the body. Both show a concern for the physical leftovers, the body that is now lacking spirit. Karen, irrationally(?), does not want to harm the body. Kyle repeatedly mentions the body's weight and anatomy. Their narratives of loss-as-a-partner and loss-as-a-son reflect similar themes, similar deliverances, similar perspectives.
"You're laying here with a bed's eye view" -'Good Times'
"but I don't remember such a bone cold chill on such a spring day" -'Sunsetting'
Kyle is clever with words. Describing someone in hospital bed as having "a bed's eye view" struck me as simple, apt inversion of a stock saying. "Bird" and "bed" sound similar, but a bed's eye view is, heartbreakingly, the opposite of a bird's eye view. And the quote from 'Sunsetting' shows that when I'm writing the lyrics out, detail is lost. Usually, when we talk we emphasize the verbs and the nouns because they're the containers of meaning. Articles are sidelined, they're less important. But in this line, Kyle screams the article "a" for a long time before rushing over "spring" and landing hard on "day". Reading, I expect the emphases to be similar to when they're spoken, but that's not always the case in the singing.
"And I guess that's life" -'Good Times'
When "I guess that's life" is introduced to 'Good Times', it's half-sung, almost a backing vocal. At the end of the song, it's taken up by Kyle as a centre-stage full-force roar. "I guess that's life" is an ambiguous phrase but it's repeated. It's important. Lyrically, it's juxtaposed with vicious experiences: letting a father die, losing youth, losing spirit. The contrast takes the phrase from being ambivalent, borderline meaningless to being a bracing remind reminder: life is vicious, there isn't much to do but cope, and it's not clear how to go about coping.
The Lack Long After is an album of hearsay and ambiguity. The lyrics start with "maybe" and are full of "I guess", "Some say", and "it seems". They state that "most shouldn't strut around with such confidence". They are full of feeling, but much is vague, unclear, up in the air. Key questions--what is being felt, how to feel it, how long to feel it for, how to move on--get only hazy answers. But there is also a glut of details: "the old folks at Roland and 3939", "Room 211", "that 3 o'clock sun", "you can still smell the cedar", "on Memorial Day", "on Tuesday". Information is not being withheld; when it's available, detail is given. But the detail is sucked free of context. Unless you know the old folks at Roland and 3939 or which Tuesday is being referenced, you can't use the detail to build a picture of the narrative. The lyrics have a surfeit of information, but without any wider certainty or context to ground them in, they deteriorate into a wash of snapshots, infused with meaning but lacking a concrete sense of where they fit into the picture and why they are important.
"I'm begging for what wasn't said" -'I'll Be Damned'
"I just wish I could have had ears for more than what you said" -'I'll Get By'
The lyrics express a lack of words, a hunger for both more information and a greater ability to communicate. Words are first demanded--"Explain to me" ('Such Confidence')--and then rejected--"No, don't say it, don't say it" ('Spine'). There's a desire for more experience. 'Sunsetting' describes Kyle biding on old pictures and old footage of his father. "I'll Be Damned" shows us his dad's favourites: Norman Rockwell scenes and Gordon Lightfoot songs. But even with this information, the emphasis is on what's missing, the questions that won't be answered: "Is it better than Clapton? Did you see your father's eyes?"
"Come on, bud, get out of that funk, it's time to move on"
The album is full of words--1,673 of them on the lyric sheet, 44 words per minute--but the words are always wanting. When things get real, when the message is most important, they deteriorate into vagueness: "I guess that's life", "It's a hell of a thing", "You 'loved life'". The words that sum up the situation best, that stick around in our heads, are vague and ambiguous. When there's something important to say, words can't say it. The detail, as mentioned before, is given to places, names, smells, times; feelings and solutions are left unclear, unstated. And the words that Kyle most wants, those of his father, are absent. He puts "come on, bud, get out of that funk, it's time to move on" into his father's mouth, but they are imagined words. The lyrics are full of grasping, full of search, but the goals--the experiences and expression being sought--are veiled. They are either, like the father's words, excised or, like the summaries of grief, kept vague. The lyrics don't reach or realize their goal, instead, through eight distressed songs and three-quarters of an hour, they tumble into an acceptance that it won't be reached. They calm down and stumble on.
"The last look into your eyes, not having the words to say thank you, say goodbye."
"The last look into your eyes, not having the words to say thank you, say goodbye."