In this case, unlike the first two songs in this series, the meaning here is pretty clear. (Unless you’re on Genius.com trying to convince people it’s about a wedding.) Man goes out to bar, drinks. Man sees ex-girlfriend, reflects. And drinks. Man sees ex-girlfriend leave with another man, and in his mind, she’s making absolutely sure he knows she’s about to curl her body like two perfect circles entwined with that other man. Man lists about on the streets, drunk and disturbed, full of anguish and regret.
This could easily be a horrible song. Give any number of 21st century alt-folk whiners a guitar and teach them a few chords, and they could easily come up with this storyline.
Airborne Toxic Event, though, makes something beautiful out of it. The arrangement is a major factor, taking us through the first simple scenes at the bar and building up to a boil along with the protagonist. And the vocals are pitch-perfect — sounding jaded and detached from the scene at first, like some world-weary novelist painting a picture, then breaking into another register when the wave of emotion finally hits and bowls him over.
It’s great art. No doubt about it.
The question I’ve wrestled with is this, and the reason I’m writing about this song in this series: What do I get from this song? Why does it resonate with me?
I’ve never been in this situation. I was never a serious drinker — never “lost in the haze of the wine” or stumbling down a street oblivious to everyone’s stares. I haven’t had a breakup I regretted since I started college.
Yes, I had one before that, and I had nearly forgotten about it. Damn you, Airborne Toxic Event! Why did you make me remember the sweet Athens girl who dumped me right after the date where we first kissed?
But that situation was pretty far removed from this one. I saw her again a few times — one of my friends thought it would be a good idea, in casting a murder mystery party, to have her murder me. (Geez, maybe I should write a song about this.) Still, she wasn’t the sort of person who’d walk into a bar, come up to me to say hi, then trot off with some dude as if to send a Nelson Muntz “Ha ha” my direction.
The closest I can come to that feeling would be in college, watching situations in which I didn’t even have a chance to be the ex. I haven’t checked with Duke, but I may still hold the university record for unrequited crushes. I can’t think of a specific situation in which I saw someone I admired from afar walking off with another guy, but if you add up all the times I realized someone was out of my league or just walking in different circles (like frat parties, which I never had the slightest interest in attending), I could probably come up with a pretty good amalgam.
Incidentally, if you’re uneasy about the protagonist here projecting too much anger on the woman in question, the video might help. Check the big letters in the notebook. It was his fault.
So that adds another layer to the anguish and regret. It’s easier to deal with things when you can just scapegoat someone. That’s why people watch cable news. He doesn’t have such an easy outlet.
Is that why this song resonates with me? In my subconscious, do I relate to this as an exercise in self-loathing?
(Scans subconscious … hmmmm … no, I don’t think that’s it.)
I recently noticed I had several breakup songs on my playlist. This one. Rachael Yamagata’s beautiful piano ballad Reason Why. The Smithereens’ powerful House We Used to Live In. And I assure you, everything’s great at home.
Maybe great songs just grab you whether you relate to them or not.
Or maybe Airborne Toxic Event loaded this song with subliminal messages about dogs, Baja Fresh and other stuff I like.