tremble clef

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Human League, "Louise" (1984)/The Divine Comedy, "A Lady of A Certain Age" (2006)

When it comes to narrative songs -- songs that tell a story, often while in character, or at least are about characters -- choruses can be a pain in the ass. In such songs, the story needs to unfold, move forward a step at a time; this is a job that usually falls to the verses. But choruses, by their nature, are repetitious, and in that sense form a kind of obstacle to that forward trajectory. There must be a reason why, even as the story keeps plunging forward, we hear the same phrases, ideas, and words repeated in the form of the chorus.

Soon to be covered by Robbie Williams, "Louise," by the Human League, who may be one of the greatest bands at telling stories, represents one way of dealing with the problem. Years ago, when I first heard the song, I thought that the chorus clunkily interrupted the flow of the story. Two former lovers -- perhaps even the same lovers from "Don't You Want Me," since the band has said that it thinks of "Louise" as a sequel to that classic -- run into each other after many years. He sees her get off the bus; he says hello, and wonders if they should chat, "as if [they] were still lovers." She recognizes and hugs him, and he tells her she looks great, and makes him feel "as if [they] were still lovers." And so they talk, and then she has to leave. But as the bus pulls away, she smiles and waves, "as if [they] were still lovers." Each iteration of the chorus, hence, might initially appear to circle around, fixated. And maybe that can be taken as a comment or a clue as to where the rekindled relationship will go from here: nowhere, or, at best, in circles. And yet, despite the static chorus, there is perhaps less circling than it might appear. Although the key line of the chorus -- "as if we were still lovers" -- remains the same with each go-round, the sentiment gains in certainty as the song progresses. The first time, he is merely hopeful, and the reconciliation only silently hoped for; the second, he may actually have articulated his wish, and there is something they do or can do -- chat -- that could start to turn them into lovers again. And finally, even as she leaves, she does so with a smile and wave that appears as an almost concrete sign of that reconciliation. In "Louise," therefore, even as the choruses remain the same, each iteration also subtly marks the distance that the song travels over the course of itself.

In the Divine Comedy's "A Lady Of A Certain Age," something like the opposite happens: the words of the chorus may subtly change, but the story remains the same. The song is a character sketch, of a high society woman who has seen better years. It's not exactly a narrative, since there isn't much of a story to her life. At least not now. Then, yes: "Back in the day you had been part of the smart set/You'd holidayed with kings, dined out with starlets/From London to New York, Cap Ferrat to Capri/In perfume by Chanel and clothes by Givenchy/You sipped camparis with David and Peter/At Noel's parties by Lake Geneva/Scaling the dizzy heights of high society/Armed only with a cheque-book and a family tree." We further learn, in the two subsequent verses, that she had married someone rich -- though those damn "socialists" taxed away much of it -- and bore him two kids, who were mostly raised by a nanny, and now they don't see her much. The son lives in Surrey and his visits are always hurried; the daughter never finished finishing school. Even the fortune is gone, left by that philandering husband to his "mistress in Marseilles."

The song therefore alleviates one difficulty with narrative songs, by unfolding the story independently of a temporal linear time scheme. The choruses consequently bear less of a burden, since there is less of a forward-moving story to interrupt. Furthermore, as every review of the track has noticed, one line of the chorus gets changed each time it's sung. "You chased the sun around the Cote d'Azur," Neil Hannon begins by singing, "until the light of youth became obscured/And left you on your own and in the shade/An English lady of a certain age/And if a nice young man would buy you a drink/You'd say with a conspiratorial wink/'You wouldn't think that I was seventy'/And he'd say,'no, you couldn't be!'" When the chorus comes around a second time, the lady's age has dropped to "sixty-three," and then, further, to "fifty-three." It's not clear if the lady is speaking to the same young man each time (or even if such a man is more than a hypothetical: "if a nice young man would buy you a drink"), but that's part of the point. Whether she is constantly accosted by different men to whom she tells more and more bald-faced lies regarding her age, or whether her story to one man gets more and more fuzzy, the import -- and the haunted delusion -- is still the same. Meanwhile, the devastating string arrangement in the background plays over and over again; it evokes a beautiful time, now gone by, but it also goes nowhere in the end. Only a starker acoustic guitar plays us out, finally. "You, on your own and in the shade/An English lady of a certain age."

To err is human; to forgive, divine.


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