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May 15, 2004

Aural Pleasure

I have officially declared this school year The Year of the Weakerthans: a year of loneliness, awkward transitions into something resembling adulthood, ambivalencies [sic], and (hopefully) discovering unknown strength in unlikely sources.

It's almost painful to see how accurate I was with this statement—a journal entry at the end of a great evening with Canadian band (as if referencing their country of origin helps describe the particular brand of punk-cum-folk-in-the-guise-of-indie-rock they play) the Weakerthans—in ways I could not have completely predicted. The Weakerthans' lyrics booklets read like maps of the emotional waters I have plunged into this year. Despite this being the Year of the Weakerthans, their music has not been as constant a presence as it could have been. However, on Wednesday, a song of theirs called "Aside" momentarily pierced my skin and made me remember not only what a great band they are, but also how well they speak to what I will call "The Drifter Condition."

The Drifter Condition is not some great theory I have. It is just a way of referring to those of us who are a little uncomfortable in our own skin. We are generally college-aged or 20-somethings, but can really be anyone who is in some sort of emotional, intellectual, or spiritual transition and looking for meaning. To begin quoting lyrics from this incredible song, we are "leaning on a broken fence between past and present tense." It is not a new idea, but the Weakerthans do an excellent job of expressing the emotional complexities of this state of being. To show just how incredible "Aside" is, I would like to do something of a close reading in an attempt to reveal a few of the secrets it has so far shown me.

The song begins with two self-descriptive verses full of lines such as "My ribs that show through t-shirts and these shoes I got for free" and "in love with love and lousy poetry," that showcase the singer's (and consequently our own) awkwardness. These verses then lead into the chorus, which is where the song really starts to get interesting. The full chorus is: "And I'm leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense. And I'm losing all those stupid games that I swore I'd never play, and it almost feels okay." And I think that almost feeling okay strikes right at the center of what it is to be in the transitional phases in which so many of us currently are. It is nearly impossible for us to live up to all the expectations we have for ourselves and even though falling short of our own ideals is not the worst thing in the world, it is difficult to feel quite comfortable when facing the realities of these shortcomings and losses.

The next part of the song is a bridge, and while the chorus does repeat, the song never returns to the vague sense of comfort found in stasis that the verses offer, which is fitting when you realize that the bridge is about exploring: "Circumnavigate this body of wonder and uncertainty. Armed with every precious failure and amateur cartography, I breathe in deep before I spread these maps out on my bedroom floor." There is no way I can address everything at work here in the space that I have, but it is worth noting that, even though uncertainty still exists, failures are beginning to become precious, worthwhile tools acquired on the way to wherever our destination is. There is also a deep breath before a jettison forward into what might be called the ‘outro,' but is really just a modification of the chorus.

The lyrics to this last part read as follows: "And I'm leaving, wave goodbye. And I'm losing, but I'll try, with the last ways left, to remember, sing my imperfect offering." What really struck me on Wednesday as I listened to this song was the tail end of this lyric, which can be slightly modified—based on the singer's inflection—to read, "With the last ways left to remember, sing my imperfect offering." And why is this offering imperfect? Sure, it's partially because we are imperfect and even the best we can give will be flawed. But I also think it is because we have deliberately shortchanged ourselves, kept ourselves not only from being able to perform at the level of some kind of future potential we may have, but also kept ourselves from simply investing enough to give all of that which we currently possess. Sometimes this happens. In fact, it happens a lot for me, and yet, I think the song still offers the possibility of some kind of progress through singing the wilted, half-assed offerings we hold in our palms. At least it offers the possibility of survival, and who said that sometimes merely survival is enough? Homer (via The Odyssey), Cursive, my friend Ruth? Yes, yes, and yes.

I know that it is not always clear if I am writing to entertain and provoke thought or to recommend music to my readers. While I would be flattered to hear that someone's musical taste (or buying habits) have been influenced by this column, I think I can only be responsible for the former. However, I hope that my explanation of why "Aside" is such an important song to me inspires you to hear it for yourself. Or at the very least, I hope that, because of this—my own imperfect offering—you are able to identify the songs that pierce your skin and listen to them with new ears.