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Sat, 23 Feb 2008

Broken Radio

This is the third track on 1999's Look Now, Look Again, the same album as we glimpsed yesterday. This is another favorite from the album. As always, read the lyrics or listen to the song.

This song is light on words. It begins instrumentally and repeats, "Traffic lights turning yellow." (I used to hear "dim and yellow.") We learn a little bit more, "A kiss and a slap on the roof." As it repeats, the listener wonders, "What is this about, and why does she care?"

It turns out the the external action of the traffic light reminds her of the feelings of a personal action. Such reminders are better when you're in a different context than when they happened. This is perhaps the best type: She interrupts a repetition to tell us that she taught it to someone.

Internal repetition for analogy is typical Rainer Maria, and I'm a sucker for it. Here it's about "the last time." (The harmony, not just the phrase, repeats.) That someone is, of course, an ex. Kyle and Caithlin harmonize from "winks out" until the end of the verse. Interestingly, she seems to always hold the note a fraction longer than he does. Maybe that's because she's "lead vocals," or maybe it's because she's the one with the (ever so slightly) greater emotional burden at the end of this relationship.

Kyle drops out and quiets the guitar to let her gush:

And I'm certain, if I drive into those trees,
It'll make less of a mess
then you've made of me.

To deliver words like this convincingly, she takes a breath to switch from her frustrated crescendo to a meek near-whisper for the last line.

The words are over before two minutes are up, and for voices we're left with Kyle and Caithlin harmonizing on "Ooh". This is actually some of Kyle's smoother singing (look at the album called Rainer Maria for other styles of Kyle, including raw screams). The "Oohs" are structured in groups of four. The last in each group is backed by a final-feeling chord, but Kyle and Caithlin vary their harmonies for the others. Maybe she's thinking of the ways things could have been different and how they'd still end the same. The last of these final-feeling chords pushes through the last of these "Oohs," and we're left with a few seconds of silence to think before the next song starts.

What is the "broken radio" that they're talking over? It could be some sort of literal bad communication system (e.g., a distorted cell phone), but to me it seems the two people are sitting right next to each other. As she drives, they try to find words for how feelings changed; as she fails to find words, she understands how hurt she is.

What do you do when you share something like this with someone but then break up? The outside world now gets to poke at the raw wound. Do you focus on making the memory a happy one of how things were or instead on what things could have been? Imagine if there's a decision you made before the break-up about a way to live your life that you now have to recontextualize; before, you could justify in terms of "both of you," but what if it doesn't stand up to justification in terms of just "self"?

This song isn't interested in answering questions like this, just reminding us of how difficult they can be. And as one of the classically sad Rainer Maria songs about failed relationships, it lays no blame.

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