We’re sitting on adjacent sun loungers topping up the tan in the Mallorquin sunshine. I’m plugged in to my ipod. I reach over and hand the ear-buds to Sue. ‘Have a listen to this,’ I say. ‘I’ve been listening to it non stop for a few days now. I can’t get it out of my mind, but I’m still not sure what it’s all about..’ Sue listens to it a few times, her head nodding slightly to the rhythm, her face thoughtful, smiles at one or two of the lines. She gets a bit more insight on it than I do, I think, maybe a woman to woman sense of empathy. ‘some boyfriend or partner,’ she suggests, ‘who’s vindictive, or can’t let go of some wrong..’
I knew Jonatha Brooke was bound to be cropping up somewhere in this series of essays. She’s too good, and too haunting a songwriter to leave one alone, once her songs have encountered you. I thought I might have been writing about ‘Inconsolable’, a track I keep coming back to with similar goosebumpy results, or songs charting her relationship with her mother – not just the whole album looking at her mother’s descent into dementia, but earlier stuff too like the wonderful ‘Angel in the House’. But no, here I am, writing about a song from the odd (I think of it as) middle-career album ‘Back to the Circus’ – an awkward release in some ways – eg the UK distributors knocked off the great covers on the original album (eg God only Knows, Eye in the Sky) and padded it with a few tracks from the previous album Steady Pull. Bonkers or what? Despite it all, there are some true crackers…and this one, practically ignored on first listen, has stolen in to my consciousness to the point where… well, like I said in the first paragraph.
Ok, let’s get into the song. The opening lines certainly back Sue’s reading – ‘Sour, sour grapes make bitter wine/ You’re no funny valentine/ you take such pleasure in revenge/ A perfect settled score/ but it just whets your appetite for more..’ It’s a scathing indictment, straight off, it’s pretty vitriolic. But somehow it’s not the heart and pulse of the song. The refrain is intriguing – the first person voice proposes – what? – a more hopeful perspective on life and interaction? ‘Listen how my heart beats inside me/ It’s the story of a thousand better days..’ Implying that, somehow, perhaps, she is able to hold onto a bigger picture of the possibility of improvements and potential… What we call hope, I suppose. Here is the implication also, then, that the second person of the song, being addressed, is unable to see that, and rather is stuck at the hurdle of a present upset and disappointment or hurt. She says ‘And I wish I could say anything to take away today’ and here comes the rub: ‘but it won’t matter when we’re old/it matters now’.
Sorry, perhaps I’m making heavy weather of this, perhaps I’m being a bit dim… But this core and much repeated line seems ambiguous. Is the idea: let’s not agonize or dwell on these present momentary drawbacks and disappointments, but instead realise that in the longer scheme of things they will pale into insignificance? Or is it rather: the time for addressing this relational problem is now, rather than letting it fester into the future? Without wishing to appear sexist or overly-binary in my thinking, I wonder: is this more often the gift of a more ‘feminine’ perspective? – to say ‘it’s not nothing, it needs dealing with: it matters.’ Consider the song’s bridge: ‘It matters now, it mattered then/ It matters how why or when /If at first you won’t try/You’ve gotta try again’ – a plea for hope and action, not just passively succumbing to defeat or resignation.
What do we make of the images and ideas of the second verse? ‘You break it now[hope?/dreams?] you own it/Like original sin/But you cannot take it with you in the state you’re in’ . In some odd way a challenge to take responsibility? The final verse is a brief couplet: ‘what price love, for how much pain?/What a surprise –you pray for rain’. Is this, then, juxtaposing two contrasting outlooks: the first a recognition that love inevitably calls for sacrifices, compromises, difficulty and ‘price’; the second outlook intrinsically pessimistic and calling forth its own defeat?
Well, as you can see, I’m not really any clearer about it than I was sitting on that sun lounger a few months ago, but I still keep listening and listening to it! And this is the wonderful Jonatha Brooke, many of whose songs retain that poetic edge of uncertainty, that makes us work at it, doesn’t hand us facile platitudes on a folk-rock plate, but gets you engaged, feeling, listening, thinking. In this respect with a compositional skill not unlike that of Dar Williams (see blog essay no.52)
It was being a bit of a Bruce Cockburn completist that brought me into acquaintance with Jonatha Brooke, when I heard her song ‘War’ (on which Bruce had duetted). The voice was a strong and intelligently distinctive one, I felt, right from first listen. And I am indebted once again to John Van Tiel for acquainting me more fully with her work, not just as a solo performer, but also in her coffeehouse performances with Jennifer Kimball as ‘The Story’. All the albums are worth chasing up. I’ve seen Jonatha perform live only once, in quite a low key venue, a small club in Bristol, but what a performer – clear and confident about the power and validity, I think, of her elegantly constructed compositions. (Bit of trivia – her band included, on bass, the remarkable Gail Ann Dorsey. Someone in the audience told me they had attended the gig just to see Gail perform!). It was a great evening.
So, I have no other anecdotal or autobiographical material into which to weave this odd little song. And maybe, who knows, it won’t even pass the test of time; maybe in a few years it won’t matter at all. But it matters now. [Ha – see what I did there?]