12/17/2020
Same tale every time

I rediscovered Elbow's "The Birds" yesterday.

Apparently I last played the song six months ago, which is a pretty long time considering how I still listen to a lot of music on the daily. I used to play that song much more frequently, though. Once a week, perhaps? Twice? It was a song that you could just immerse in, get lost in.

It helps that the song is eight minutes long. It also helps that the album it came off of was built to be immersed in. Build a Rocket Boys! came at an unusual time for the band: long a critical darling, with a dedicated following and seemingly happy with it, they broke out massively with the release of "One Day Like This" in 2008. Suddenly, a band known for its dense, lush, introspective songs had a following who are looking for a sweeping, emotional anthem.

I'm not saying this to boast of knowing Elbow before all that; I have heard some of their earlier stuff before it all happened, but I count myself as among the masses who were converted when that song came along. This was when I still went to other countries with arguable regularity and spent at least one afternoon suffering from analysis paralysis in their record stores. I got a copy of The Seldom Seen Kid. (I have a different favorite song off it.) I later got a copy of Build a Rocket Boys! - a record surrounded by much anticipation, and somehow bucks expectations by both acceding to mainstream demands and doubling down on their prog rock influences. (It's a record that specifically warns you not to turn up the volume, because the quiet bits are supposed to be quiet. Wonder how that works out in a time of streaming.)

That explains "The Birds", an eight-minute song that kicks off the album, a song that plods along while quietly building up to a defiance of the norms. The song is about an elderly man who reminisces about an old love affair, and the carers in the facility he now lives in being patronizing around him.

What are we gonna do with you? Same tale every time.

And then the song swells up, the mechanical middle eight pushed aside in a rush of strings and horns, the song's subject standing up (in my head) and telling the story again. Or maybe he didn't stand up. Could he? But who's taking that memory away from him? It's one of his favorite moments. Nobody can take that away from him.

I did listen to this song on repeat years ago. I must've developed a Pavlovian response to it. When that moment hits, I stifle an urge to cry.

Back when I had a music blog I was toying with the idea of a week of songs that made me cry. Of course it never happened, likely because I was more preoccupied with closing the blog. I can't remember the other songs I considered writing about, but one of them is Dizzy's "Swim", a song that also has this one moment, just after the second chorus, that hits you. Especially if you listen closely to the words.

Sometimes the impact gets dulled by repeat plays. I've been listening to that Dizzy track a fair amount in the past few months, and sometimes it just passes me by. Maybe six months from now, after not playing it at all. (They did release a new album this year, after all. It's got some good stuff, but I haven't listened as closely now that I don't have a blog, meaning I don't have to.) That's what happened yesterday, when "The Birds" came on, when I strapped myself into that eight-minute journey and found myself stifling a cry.

We all know it's been a weird past few months, one where some of us - those of us who don't have the riches to do so - find ourselves stuck, unable to proceed, helpless as we watch our so-called friends show off their successes, among other things, of course. I think of talking about being sad, but I imagine - I always imagine - people like you dismissing me and what I feel and perhaps the courage to even talk about it, because I'm just repeating myself and I'm getting boring and why can't I just be happy for a change? What are we gonna do with you? Same tale every time.

And your responses...

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