#31songs (13): A song about other worlds
‘Weightless’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger
The ‘song about’ formula doesn’t suit The Blue Aeroplanes, as, like a lot of symbolist and modernist poetry, Gerard Langley’s lyrics resist reduction to a theme or a message. How we interpret the lyrics to ‘Weightless’ depends a lot on the music, and if I say these are lyrics about ‘other worlds’, it’s because of various references to space-flight, and particularly the line repeated regretfully and yet self-deprecatingly after the song has subsided from its climax: ‘I liked being weightless best’. The lyrics manage to articulate the listener’s own regret that the song will soon be over, and a feeling that its intensity can never be regained.
The song starts gently; the melodic guitar line has a folky flavour that I can’t help but think of as Scottish; perhaps because of the hammer-on from B to D, perhaps because of the way that the interval of G to D dominates. (Compare the instrumental ‘For Tim Collins’ on Friendloverplane 2, which has a similar electric guitar sound in it, or the opening of ‘Autumn Journal XXIV‘, which I hope to come back to in a later post.) The bass comes in with a descending line, interplaying delicately with the other guitars. The first 25 seconds are perfection; then there’s heavily reverbed drum part that sounded just fine in 1990 but is now the one thing in the whole song that feels dated. But it can be forgiven. The whole pace suggests a band utterly confident in themselves: they can create an atmosphere that leads us into the core of the song and they’re sure we won’t grow impatient; each new bar, or at least each return to the start of the sequence of chords, brings something new.
In contrast with the attention-grabbing opening of ‘Jacket Hangs’, the vocals here begin in an understated way, as if picking up a conversation that had already been underway. The expressive variety in this song makes it one of Gerard Langley’s greatest performances. What the ‘it’ of the opening verse might be we can only infer: it could be some unarticulated disagreement that’s destroying a relationship from within; with the phrase about drink that follows, we seem to be in the same lyrical territory as some of the Spitting Out Miracles songs. But what is ‘the guide’? In being ‘shuttle-bound’ are they on their way to an airport shuttle-bus, moving on without having really resolved things, or on their way to the space shuttle? I don’t think of Langley as a writer of science-fiction lyrics, but this one is titled ‘Weightless’, so it’s not impossible to think of it as set in outer space. That too would make sense of ‘half the world’s / floating in space’: one side of the globe, seen from space. (According to Richard Bell’s blog, the song was part of the live set in the October-November 1988 tour, and it was around this time that Space Shuttle flights resumed following the Challenger disaster of January 1986. In that context, being ‘shuttle-bound’ has connotations of defiant determination.)
One of my biggest problems in interpreting this lyric is a crucial difference between the printed text and what Gerard performs on the record. It comes as the song rises to a climax and the vocals come back in after an instrumental break. The sleeve notes have people ‘swaying and guinea-wormed’, but in the performance it sounds more like ‘swaying and scrubland‘ or maybe ‘swaying and scrubbed-out‘. The guinea-worm makes sense of much else in the lyric, especially the something ‘growing inside’ and ‘when it’s out it’ll just / poison the bloody water again’, and ‘working down the body slowly’ might be a reference to the worm coming out of a limb. The guinea-worm could be the ‘it’ of the opening verse. Whatever the ‘it’ might be, it’s parasitic and destructive, but the fifth and sixth verses propose something even more complex — ‘That what’s living / inside comes from a shared necessity’ — which might also explain the ‘sinister babies’: they’ve made this things together, and can never get rid of it.
The coda to the song, ‘Ok, we can go for a quick drink after work’, manages an astonishing though abrupt transition of tone, as if the speaker were trying to cover up the passionate confrontation (sinister parasites, spaceflight, and so on) with socially conventional compromises. Musically, too, the band manage a wonderful transition of atmosphere, from the powerful middle section to something that resembles the opening in its quiet reflective tone, but isn’t exactly the same. I especially like the descending chromatic sequence of notes on one of the guitars (A, G#, G, F#), which brings a tone of foreboding to the conclusion, as if the whatever poisoned the bloody water is already preparing to come back. And of course on the album, they start to fade in the echoing notes that introduce ‘… And Stones’.
If we can’t destroy it straight,
we could at least murder it,
burn it out as we crash the guide.
But no, we’re shuttle-bound
and poker-faced, we talk it
under the table, thinking hearts
And dry flowers played against us
crook the bloody circumstance.
That said, violence is like drink.
One’s too many and a hundred’s
not enough. Or one’s too many
and a hundred brooks no argument.
The sound of violins drowned in
gunfire. It’s the water of life.
At the edge of our sight, half
the world’s floating in space
like diagrams with consequence,
and how much falls to anyone else?
Walking down this hillside
to clear water, there’s something
breathing, growing inside like
sinister babies, the trees
pollarded like love gone awry.
Now swaying and guinea-wormed,
people in the way of crowds grown
aimless and bitter crack the ground.
The skies light with satellites,
the windows light with booby-traps.
Working down the body slowly,
hit on this! That what’s living
inside comes from a shared necessity
and when it’s out it’ll just
poison the bloody water again.
Ok, we can go for a quick drink
after work, it’s a way of life, sure
but I liked being weightless best …