135. Song No. 1,959: “Cold Night,” Yeasayer
Amen & Goodbye, 2016
So. The perils of enjoying a song for how it sounds rather than the story its lyrics tell, eh?
For the longest time, Yeasayer was mostly “Ambling Alp” to me, which includes one of the best lyrics it took me about two months to finally register. Which, uh, does a mighty fine job setting the stage for my shoddy lyrical awareness. (How ya doin’, I’m a professional word-nerd.)
But, like, with an intro edging into vaguely surf-rock terrain, I feel like it’s an easy mistake to assume this is gonna be a song as utterly danceable as its music suggests. Who honestly expects licks this funky to give way to lyrics that fucking start with a gut-punch like “It’s been one year since you turned yourself back into dust”?
It’s a song about suicide so of course it only escalates from there, but it does that thing almost any medium tackling suicide defaults to and makes it all about the survivors. Obviously, someone who completed suicide has written themselves out of the story, but there’s almost always a reason as well as a pain eclipsing that of those left behind to divide a burden amongst themselves, and these things deserve to be spoken of because they’re never exclusive to one person’s story and need to be part of what comes next for the people and messages forging ahead. There are lessons to learn, perspectives to consider, chronically all-consuming pains to respect, but they’re not about making sense of one person’s decision so much as they are about understanding why anyone concludes it’s their only way to find peace. (I got so incensed about how we talk about suicide a few years ago that I dashed off a Letter to the Editor about it to one of my former papers, in case there was any shred of ambiguity to how I feel about this.)
We wail about the selfishness of suicide, which I completely understand even if I don’t agree with it. Processing grief is a messy, intensely personal and personalized experience that takes the human psyche to some terrible places and gutting lows, and more people naturally relate to survivor’s guilt than the struggle driving someone to end their own life. To me, though, making one person’s pain about other people feels uncomfortably parasitic and possessive.
Like, yeah, it fucks up those left to wonder how they could stayed their loved one’s hand or talked them into at least waiting to meet their niece before they left but loss, no matter how earth-shatteringly tragic, is a necessary part of life we all have to navigate whereas carrying more pain than one person should be expected to bear for the sake of others isn’t.
Because it’s not about finding something sacred to hold onto or convincing someone who’s been hurting for as long as they can remember to stick around or reducing a death to one conversation that never happened or one night that did. There are never enough reasons to stay if someone just wants to escape the dominant, unyielding pain of existence. It’s not artistic or noble or inspiring to persevere when your body and brain are a prison and a life sentence in equal measures. And what strikes me as selfish is asking someone to ignore their own pain because you don’t want to know it, either.
But if any band was going to address suicide not with a dirge but a tune to make you feel like dancing, it had to be the experimental, psychedelic-rock-infused forces behind Yeasayer, a band whose self-supplied description of “Sgt. Pepper meets Hieronymous Bosch meets Dali meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” applies to a helluva lot more than a video shoot and some album art.
There’s plenty of overtly mournful songs about suicide out there and this one turns that concept on its ear to deliver something uniquely, unmistakably Yeasayer’s, which is to say it plays with conventions while proving that understatement isn’t the only solid way to underscore tragedy when crafting a dichotomy of expectations is also a neat little trick to whip out from one’s storytelling toolkit. Loss, no matter how it happens or how inevitable it is, still hurts like hell when it happens, and every goodbye isn’t just an obituary and a statistic: It’s forever losing a loved one who occupied a place in the world so singularly theirs that nothing can fill that void. But nothing is meant to anyway, because it’s not our place to sidestep the grief process and profane a memory by trying to replace someone whose not yours to claim in the first place because love is not a possessive hold on a body but a mutual cultivation between two souls.