I’m cynical but very sentimental, and I like—the way some people like air—to sing along with songs in my car. Songs capture and occupy me for a week or so. Nothing else musical matters but the one song that seems to be wiser than I am, and smoother, and more melodic. I want to be that song. Sadly, it ruins every other song for me, but I know it will eventually give way and let me go with other songs, for a time, that make me feel like living.
At the moment, this Ben Folds song flatout owns me. I can’t get through it without sobbing, so singing it in the car is impossible. Therefore, let’s critique its technique and see what we can learn about how to be artists who make people sob at the wheels of their cars.
I don’t get many things right the first time.
In fact, I am told that a lot.
The author/songwriter/singer admits his fallibility,
therefore making himself in six words adorable,
but also claims wide experience and the ability to improve.
Nobody says, “You didn’t get this right your first time.”
They don’t know it’s your first time. They say, “You screwed this up.”
If he gets it right the next time,
it’s because he learns from experience.
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles, and falls brought me here.
Two lines in and we are deep in philosophy.
He grants that life is a journey determined by missteps.
He acknowledges that he has been shaped by”wrong turns.”
But the sentence, beginning with Now, demands a but.
He doesn’t give it to us.
There’s room in the music for a:
“but I wish I had done things differently.”
Instead, we get a few bars of music without any lyric at all.
Those empty spaces, where we say all that’s in our hearts,
and he says nothing at all, are the most eloquent lines of all.
And where was I before the day
that I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it every day.
Two lines back we wondered
whether he would have done things differently?
For a few bars we waited for the “but.”
The questions and the waiting are redeemed here.
He was nowhere before he met her.
Doing things differently might have cost him that meeting.
What a lucky break that his screwing up brought him to her!
He in no way regrets not “getting things right the first time.”
All the missteps led to his seeing her every day.
What if I’d been born 50 years before you in a house
on the street where you live?
This is currently my favorite line of literature.
It mingles gratitude and fear so that they are inseparable.
Missteps brought him here, so his happiness is admittedly fragile.
Time too, and circumstances could have kept him from her.
Accidents of birth or location:
Right time, wrong place; right place, wrong time.
He comes close to lamenting the loss of
something he actually still has and may never lose.
Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike.
Would I know . . . ?
More on the theme of asynchronous time here.
The genius part is another silence.
During the bars following “Would I know?,” we cannot
help but fill in the blank.
And in a wide sea of eyes, I see one pair that I recognize.
One pair. Out of the entire sea of eyes.
Had it not been for her, whose would he recognize?
He doesn’t say how close he came to recognizing no one at all.
He doesn’t have to.
He gets us to say it all.
And I know that I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
Perhaps the most eloquent silence of all:
the luckiest what?
We expect the line to be, “the lucky one,”
but that would mean no one else was lucky.
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
By far the weakest line of all.
Artificially elongated from “I love you more than I can say”
just for the sake of the meter.
That final “to you” is truly cringe-worthy.
Next door there’s an old man who lived to his 90s
and one day passed away in his sleep.
1) There’s no old man there now; he died.
2) The and is weak, as if he had a list of two items: live, then die.
3) Redundant, as certainly anyone who lives to his 90s is old.
Not to mention he’s telling this story to someone who,
if she lives with him, should know it from her own observations.
But what a brilliant narrative gambit.
The admitted screwup who seldom”gets things right the first time”
offers this odd anecdote that sounds completely irrelevant, but which
is precisely about two people who got lucky and who happened,
like the singer and his love, to live on the same street.
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away.
1) wife, she is really poor
2) stayed is unnecessarily ambiguous: stayed alive or didn’t move?
3) the and again, for living, then dying.
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong.
Still the screwup, apologizing for the oddity of his analogy,
but knowing it’s completely apt.
His 50-year-old and the girl on the bike didn’t overlap
nearly enough, but the old man and his wife
had almost entirely synchronous lifespans.
Another brilliant silence:
In the bars that follow, “we belong,” he doesn’t say,
“to one another, ” or “in this place,” or “to this time.”
He lets us fill in.
But even the old man and his wife weren’t the luckiest.
That I know that I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
If you’ve ever had the feeling
that you could easily have missed out on the love of your life,
you’ll understand this song without any guidance from me.
If you haven’t, I hope someday you will.
The “nostalgia for the present” that I hear in this song is similar to a feeling I have about my wife, whom I have known for close to 40 years. What I long for is to have known her when she was a girl. I feel terribly deprived that we didn’t grow up together as children. As well as I know her now, I will never know her as she was. Lucky as I am, someone who has what I have missed may be the luckiest.