Friday, August 10, 2007

Stop and smell the smoke

I don't think Nick Hornby's Songbook was meant to get people to like the songs that were the topics of his essays, nor was it, I feel, intended exclusively for people who are fans of the artists that he wrote about in the book. That was the point I had been trying to get across to my officemate whose copy I'd first read, who said that she didn't finish the book because she didn't know any of the songs in it. I had since bought my own copy, and for Christmas last year, gave another copy to another friend at the office who was into loads of music as well, with hope that, since she downloaded as much music as she did, she would enjoy the collection of essays as much as I did.

Rather than songs and artists, Songbook really is about experiences that would be common to music fans, from the casual to the passionate. When Hornby writes about how he can't get this pop song out of his head ("I'm Like a Bird" by Nelly Furtado), it's like that whole month when Corrine Bailey Rae's "Trouble Sleeping" was the only thing I had any desire to listen to. The obscure gig in a dingy pub featuring a singer named Marce LaCouture that turned into magic, lit up his evening and ended up on his novel High Fidelity, that was like when I took a friend to a Bayang Barrios show at Conspiracy on a whim and we enjoyed the evening so much that we ended up walking in the rain till the sun came up. Even his buddy Lee, who turned him onto new music such as Mark Mulcahy, reminded me of people like Ellen, who'd always turn me onto music that I liked that I wouldn't have discovered otherwise, or Jasper, who does the same thing for me but for books. Bruce Springsteen to him is the Eraserheads for me.

Despite all of that, however, my favorite essay in the book is one where he argues the merits of a song. In it, he relates how he has a friend who believes that all the music today is crap. He responds by picking one of his favorite songs, "Smoke" by the Ben Folds Five, and championing the hell out of it, in the process making it tough for the reader not to like the song.

"Smoke" is one of the cleverest, wisest songs about the slow death of a relationship that I know. Lots of people have assailed the thorny romantic topic of starting all over again (for example, off the top of my head, "Starting All Over Again," by Mel & Tim), and the conclusion they usually come to is that it's going to be tough, but both practicable and desirable; the heartbreaking thing about Folds's song is that it manages to simultaneously convey both the narrator's desperation and the impossibility of a happy outcome. He doesn't know about the latter, though--only Folds the songwriter, who has the benefit of music and a vantage point, can see that the relationship is doomed.

In "Smoke," the central conceit is that the relationship is a book, and so its unhappy recent history, the narrator wants to believe, can be destroyed by burning it page by page, until "all the things we've written in it never really happened." "Here's an evening dark with shame," he sings. "Throw it on the fire!" the backing vocalists tells him. "Here's the time I took the blame. (Throw it on the fire!) Here's the time we didn't speak, it seemed, for years and years..."

Wiping the slate clean is the fantasy of anyone who has ever got into a mess with a partner, and the metaphor is witty enough and rich enough to seduce us into thinking just for a moment that in this case it might be possible, but the music here, a mournful waltz, tells a different story. It doesn't sound as if the narrator's lover is terribly convinced, either. "You keep saying the past's not dead," he tells her, "Well, stop and smell the smoke." But the smoke, of course, contains precisely the opposite meaning: it's everywhere, choking them. "You keep saying... we're smoke," he concludes sadly, and we can tell that he's beginning to believe it finally; the smell of smoke, it turns out, does not symbolize hope but its opposite.

"Smoke", I think, lyrically perfect, clever and sad and neat, in a way that my friend would not credit; it's also one of the very few songs that is thoughtful about the process of love, rather than the object or the subject. And it was a constant companion during the end (the long drawn-out end) of my marriage, and it made sense then, and it still makes sense now. You can't ask much more of a song than that.

Now, after reading that, download the song and try not to like it.

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it's like that whole month when Corrine Bailey Rae's "Trouble Sleeping" was the only thing I had any desire to listen to.

Hey that's my favourite Corrine song too :) And like you, I can only bear to listen to certain songs in certain points of my life.

P.S. Iba na ang URL ko :P


hehe sorry, naayos ko na yung link


i've never been a fan of ben folds or ben folds five. and it makes me wonder why i'm not and why i shouldn't be, hearing that their songs have the same feel with the songs that i like.

i should burn my book...


basta ako, ang favorite ben folds (five) song ko, eto:


Oh my god, i've come to love that song.

here's my favorite nick hornby quote, which i think is also apt with this entry. :)

“It seems to me that if you place music (and books, probably, and films, and plays, and anything that makes you feel) at the centre of your being, then you can’t afford to sort out your love life, start to think of it as the finished product. You’ve got to pick at it, keep it alive and in turmoil, you’ve got to pick at it and unravel it until it all comes apart and you’re compelled to start all over again. Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship.”
---Nick Hornby, High Fidelity


hey angela, favorite ko rin ung quote na yan. naisulat ko na rin yan dito sa blog na to. gusto ko rin ung quote about soul, and rob's inner inventory...


pare, can you please upload the songs again, or pasend na lang sa email. Expired na kasi yung mga yousendit links eh. Thanks. :)


ah. saw the link to the Ben Folds Five album on Multiply from your latest post. No need to send the links pre. :)


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