Friday, March 2, 2012

"Up Against the Wall" by Peter Bjorn and John

Original booklet lyrics reprinted below.

The narrative in these lyrics begins very much in the middle of the action (or -- perhaps more fittingly -- inaction). Whatever relationship these two lovers have had, it is ending, and the narrator is only mildly interested. There’s a certain tone of helplessness about the narrator and an air of apathy, while his lover sits on the opposite side of that scale. The relationship has barely been an investment to the narrator, but he didn’t anticipate it ending. When she surprises him at home and brings the breakup confrontation right to him, he is forced into a realization (your slap was like a wake-up call) that a relationship requires dedication that he isn't ready to commit.

One of the more captivating attributes of this song is the way it uses instrumental sounds and space to emphasize the narrative of this song. The sounds begin with a peaceful, droning synthesizer leading into a lackadaisical, plunky harmonization between guitar and bass.

As the narrator begins his address, the sounds drop out to emphasize a minimal drum tap behind a simple bass strum. The lyrics illustrate the narrator's unavoidable tone of apathy as he shrugs "I guess I should have caught your call," matching the musical depression of melody.

When the second verse begins to highlight the confrontational conversation, the guitar provides a supporting flitter of clear, jangling notes.

Third verse: chaos. A distorted minor chord reverberates on the guitar in a sudden, jolting discord as a patter of electronic snares and cymbals emulates the splashes and crash of a glass shattering on an apartment floor, emphasizing the lover's slap. And the wobbly guitar is here to stay, as the voice of the cold hands and trembling bones.

This is where the lyrics end, but we're only three minutes and sixteen seconds into a song that stretches just over seven minutes. In other words, this story isn't over yet.

How do the remaining four minutes inform us of the rest of the narrative? As the third verse fades out, the instruments continue to be as frantic as they were when they accompanied the lyrics, and the layers of riffs build into a vocalist's distant howl of "ooooooo." Could this be the shocked sound of realization? The emotional epiphany during which one surges with regret? A childlike wail of self-discomfort? Or perhaps simply a profound sigh of defeat?

The lyrics appear to be similar in style to a post-breakup letter of apology, wherein the author is unable to focus on his addressee, and instead pleas his own violation: "You don't know how it feels, / you got me up against the wall." This narrator doesn't know how he should feel. Before this confrontation, he had felt a complete absence of emotion about this relationship: it existed, and therefore he was satisfied with it. But this argument shakes him like he's snapping out of tunnel-vision as he's blowing through a stop sign ("bones are trembling, hands are cold"). He's so surprised that he can't process all these new factors to consider, and he retreats ("Maybe we could make this work, / but I just had to leave before it's getting worse.")

The final round of lyrics moves promptly into the aftermath: the relationship has collapsed, and our narrator reflects with an untimely development of emotional attachment (and, now, severance). "The bruises on the face don't bother [him] at all," but the intangible damage is painful. As if in shock, his bones are still trembling, and his hands are still cold. His sorrowful conclusion is this: it would have been better to drag the argument out than to abandon it ("it's almost that I wish you had me up against the wall"). As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and this narrator laments not paying enough attention to the situation he had been in.

But, as it goes with post-relationship depression, the time will drone by and reflection will draw out the saddest thoughts and a typhoon of what-ifs, like the climax of sounds in the second, instrumental half of the song, before the painful memories drop out of frame: first the guitar, then the drum machine, then the synth.

I guess I should have caught your call,
but I just had to waste the phone, forget it all.
Bones are trembling, hands are cold,
you don't know how it feels,
you got me up against the wall.

Maybe we could make this work,
but I just had to leave before it's getting worse.
I don't know what you came here for,
it's almost that I wish we hadn't met at all.

Your slap was like a wake-up call,
the bruises on my face don't bother me at all.
Bones are trembling, hands are cold,
it's almost that I wish you had me
up against the wall.

No comments:

Post a Comment