Music Monday: If I had a Cello

I will not let my post count stay at 666, appealing as that might be! Time to start blogging again.

I’m picking two old Zoesongs, two of my absolute favourites and two which demonstrates just how fucking fantastic a songwriter she is. Both are “muted” overall, medium tempo, only a bit of range stretching and fairly simple arrangements. But the lyrics and music are devastating. Today, “If I had a cello” and next week “Songs of Love and Distance”.

This song is so heart achingly world weary yet…uplifting! It starts so strange:

Dont ask what I’m doing these days, I don’t know,

I lose track of it all

Is the interlocutor a daily acquaintance? I don’t think so. They seem like a far off person, at least temporally. Someone trying to catch up. Someone who we might have expected to lose track of the narrator’s all. But so has the narrator!

I’m alright I just lie here watching the light
as it slides down the wall

Depression? Or just…on the phone with an old friend or lover wondering wistfully. I always hear this as a call out to Paul Simon’s, “Obvious Child”:

I’ve been waking up at sunrise
I’ve been following the light across my room
I watch the night receive the room of my day
Some people say the sky is just the sky
But I say
Why deny the obvious child?
Why deny the obvious child?

(This is certainly one of the more elliptical verses of a song with a lot of elliptical at best bits.)

And some things have happened, but nothing’s really news
Maybe I’ll get a cello, and teach it to sing the blues

This not a blues song. It’s a meta blues song. The fantasy of getting a cello and mastering it to the point it sings the blues is so extravagant compared to the prior lines. Then we get the first round of the chorus:

If I had any sense I would say I was steady
If I had any say well I’ve said already
And you know, if I had me a heart I’d have something to lose
If I had me a cello, I’d teach it to sing the blues…

The first time I hear that it killed me. The way Zoe’s voice comes down on “blues” is so wishful, emotional, yet detached. I sometimes read it as about depression (esp with some dissociation and depersonalisation). Depression doesn’t always manifest itself as tearful sadness and more than grief does. Sometimes, you’re just lost. So far away from anything that feels real or good or true or happy that there’s just nothing. Numbness is a coping strategy but it doesn’t feel good. It’s distressing.

The second version deepens the depression theme, but the second chorus really hits the bluesiness:

And I don’t wanna cry and I don’t wanna holler
And there’s nothing to buy with another day’s dollar
And you know, I got nothin’ to say, nothin’ to lose
But if I had me a cello I’d teach it to sing the blues…

The transmutation of elements of the first chorus are spectacular. From  the sense of saying “I was steady” to not wanting to cry or holler feels like the surveying of the range of futile options (reinforced by the second line).

The start of the last verse makes me tear every time:

Don’t ask if I love you today, I don’t know
I’m a bit out of touch
I forgot what it feels like to care a whole lot
About anything much

I don’t feel like singing, there’s nothing in it now
If I had a cello, I might remember how!

 

This fixes the depression theory for me and I remember being the interlocutor (and the narrator). The loss of love and singing is only held off by the strange cello fantasy. The last chorus throws in some more blueness:

If I had me a plane I could be on the level
If I had me a soul, I could deal with the Devil
And you know, if I had me a heart I’d have something to lose
If I had me a cello, I would teach it to sing the blues

 

There’s an awesome coda:

And nobody dies of a second rate sorrow
I could get out of bed and feel fine tomorrow

This captures one of the most destructive aspects of depression, the idea that it’s no big deal and sorta a choice.

There’s a version of the recording where she double tracks the vocals on the chorus offset by about half a line. I loved it but her dad thought it made things too cluttered. I don’t know if I still have a copy of it but I will dig around.

As poetry alone, this is amazing. It’s definitely a “song” type of poetry, but the subtle imagery and progression are precise and evocative in multiple ways. The rhyme and rhythm are perfect and the tone varies from formaller to looser without any artificiality.

Then there’s the music. It’s sneaky then it soars. It fits the words so perfectly that it carries you along through their complexities. The way Zoe hits “touch/much” rhyme makes the whole verse into devastation for the interlocutor.

Travelling Moon has a lot of a lot of great songs on it. People should give it a listen!

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