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In Dark They’re Coming to Get Me

September 21, 2010

“Blackbird,” a Paul McCartney-only track on The Beatles’ White Album, is one of his best, and  the opposite of what came before. McCartney was The Beatles’ true extrovert, famous for making eye contact with every individual member of the audience he could see (John Lennon couldn’t see past the mic without his glasses). Even when he sang about loneliness in Eleanor Rigby, it was with an attention-seizing arrangement (string octet? on Top 40 radio?) and a vocal that rose out of the speakers to meet you. The impresario Beatle, he mastered and redefined the role in introducing the band, then the world, to the concept of Sgt. Pepper in 1967.

In “Blackbird,” he lets us listen to him musing alone with a guitar. Sure, there’s not much difference between it, musically, and “Yesterday,” but the few differences are key. “Yesterday” is about being alone, a show-stopping tune made for the solo spotlight on the solo singer, perfectly simple–theatrically simple, from that first lonely power-plunked low F to the sparse string quartet, the opposite of 1950s orchestral strings, understatement they can see in the back row.

“Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” are classics, ones I’ve listened to for hours and loved over the decades. They are perfectly formed stories about perfectly formed characters. (Paul still gets my vote as The Beatles’ real genius.)

“Blackbird” isn’t about a lonely man are about loneliness. It’s the song of man who’s alone, singing to himself. A lullaby? Yes. An anthem? That too. A love song? Always. To himself? Yes, and to everyone. Isn’t that how love tends to go?

“Blackbird” is usually read as a metaphor. It has to be. It literally makes no sense. Unlike “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” it doesn’t tell a story, not one that I can summarize. But everyone knows what it means, instantly, first time you hear it. You love it, although you might not notice, because it doesn’t demand your attention.

I’ve always admired Beatle Paul, the most popular boy in the whole world, admitting his dread of loneliness in song after song. It’s a public service, admitting vulnerability, reassuring to everyone in the whole worldwide tribe wondering if love will survive. (He wrote “When I’m 64” when he was 16.)

But he didn’t let the listener get a close look at him until “Blackbird.” On that one, Paul lets you listen to him talk to himself. Naturally, being Paul McCartney, he sings to himself. And he plays (clever two-note chords in a strange pattern–the song may sound simpler than “Yesterday,” but unlike the earlier song, its chords ain’t normal) rather than performs.

Summary: It’s personal. Yet universal. “Eleanor Rigby” may console the lonely; “Yesterday,” the romantically bereft. “Blackbird” consoles everyone for everything. “The Beatles” is usually seen as a musical retrenchment following Sgt. Pepper’s experimentation, but “Blackbird” is a step forward for McCartney, the artist.

I’ve got Jed Whedon‘s “Tricks on Me” on endless loop as I write this, which is not confusing at all, because the first time I heard it and ever since, I thought, “This is his White Album Paul McCartney song!” Which I’m not sure sounds like a compliment to everyone else, thus the lengthy explanation above. (It’s even got a bird: “Well, it’s all about you, Dove.”)

Jed‘s voice is quiet, and he doesn’t fight that on this album, he lets us hear him. The quiet somehow expands the dynamic range of the music, since the sound changes from phrase to phrase as his attention turns from one thing to another. Like “Blackbird,” it’s both inscrutably personal and welcomingly universal.

Every house an allegory . . . A little light across your face

I find myself singing along whether it’s playing or not. It’s not a lonely song, but it is the sound of someone alone, at least for a little while.

In dark they’re coming to get me.

The instrumentation sounds simple, but there’s always a lot going on a Jed Whedon track and this one doesn’t wear out its welcome, keeps rewarding another listen. Like, I dunno, “Blackbird,” a song McCartney still sings in concert.

To my ears, “Tricks on Me” is a classic, but it’s not an obvious one. It’s the sound of a man singing alone. A lullaby? Yes. An anthem? That too. A love song? Always. To himself? Yes, I hope so, but to everyone else too.

In “Epitaph Two,” his part was to bolt out the door when Paul and Faith, Ripped and Buffer, stagger in and say Topher collapsed. Yes, I thought, send the one guy skinnier than Topher to carry him. But it works, because this Jed guy can definitely play supportive. His brother asked if he would make him a soundtrack album, and he did, and then his brother asked him it he would make another album, and he did. Supportive, to understate the case. He and his wife work and play together, and his younger brother says no matter how good your relationship is, it ain’t as good as theirs. (And I want to say for the record that when I called them J-Mo it was a brand new expression I coined to reflect the desire to live in an alternate universe where supportive married duos are as big stars as the one they rhyme with in this universe, where one person is on both sides of the dash, and when I started this it was good and pure and nice and I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling, not even a vague suspicion, that my two wacky funny syllables would become contemporary slang for something unpleasant and it is totally not my fault. Sorry guys. It was nice while it lasted. Real nice.)

The rest of the album’s awesome, too, so give a listen or 40 to History of Forgotten Things. This is a voice you want to hear.

Edited to Add: It turns out there are (other) nice definitions of J-Mo, including “to be really cool and smart!” Hip hip, hurray! I am not the bringer meme-onic plague!

  1. korkster permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:13 pm

    I don’t recall ever listening to “Blackbird”, but I must admit that I adore “Tricks on Me” and I think you’re onto something with your explanation. I find it to be extremely personal, but for me as much as him. And his can that be unless it’s everyone’s anthem? I tried explainingto my friend why I love “History of Forgotten Things”; I wish I had your analysis with me. Very insightful. Thank you!

  2. Pointy permalink*
    September 21, 2010 2:50 pm

    Thank you, kind Korkster!

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