house in order

A song I’ve been listening to a lot over the last few weeks, “Wolves” by Phosphorescent, is a bit of a surprise to me, in that the first time I heard it, I didn’t like it that much. A bit too easy to categorize, I thought – with its waltz-time ukulele, its mournful vocal, and its funereal harmonium. But something in the lyrics, first, grabbed me – and then the rest of the song fell into place, ukulele and harmonium included. I began to notice the way Phosphorescent (essentially Atlanta musician Matthew Houck) either artfully or casually had been none too careful about tuning the instruments (either the harmonium’s out of tune with itself, or it’s doubled with a slightly out-of-tune version of itself; and some of those ukulele notes are slightly off as well), and the way the song moves gradually from mournful country waltz to something a little bit less genre-specific through the additional of some electric guitar tracks that at times create a reverberant sonic space nearly Frippian in its ambience.

But mostly, it was the lyrics. I’ve babbled often about lyrics here – including the fact that I don’t usually hear them until the music of a song is quite familiar, even if then. One quality I’ve frequently referred to is that of being evocative – and I think “Wolves” not only is evocative to a high degree, but the way it becomes so is useful (to me, at least) in understanding one way lyrics might have that quality. Is Houck singing about literal wolves, or are the wolves a figure of speech? Well, in favor of the first idea, the wolves’ physicality, their form, their movement, their “tumbling and fighting,” even the stain of blood around their mouths, all are directly and plainly described. Even though “wolves at the door” is a metaphor, it can also describe a literal truth. Yet these wolves seem more than literal as well. The wolves “make for [his] heart as their home,” they’re “blazing with light” in a manner not usually associated with corporeal wolves (sure, a white wolf might reflect moonlight – but that hardly constitutes “blazing”).

More than that, what is the singer’s attitude toward these wolves? At first, they seem to have trapped him – as you’d expect, he seems fearful, concerned, offering up what seems more like a desperate prayer (to “mama” – who doesn’t seem as if she’s actually present, nor that if she were she could do anything to help). Yet the rest of the lyric, and the music itself, presents the wolves with a sort of hushed awe: “they’re beautiful” is the line that repeats at the end of several stanzas, and the hypnotic cross-rhythm with which Houck sings of the one wolf in particular – “blazing with light / is the whitest, and the tallest, / and the biggest one / all muscled and fine when she runs” – nearly re-presents that prayerful attitude, now directed to the chief wolf.

The net effect of all this is that the song clearly means more to the narrator than its lyrics can tell us: there’s a numinosity to the literal, physical world he describes that transcends that literality and physicality. Note also the simplicity of his language, and that even when he uses figural language, it’s at such a root level that it barely registers as figural (the “heart as home” line I mention above; and “bury their claws”).

That simplicity means also that the lyric’s meaning is more open than if it had been made of more complex and figurative language. We think of everyday words as simple, basic, and functioning primarily to name everyday objects or concepts – but that very commonness means they also have a rich (but therefore nonspecific) metaphoricity, a richness harder to control because of the words’ unexceptionality. “Wolf” might connote wildness, or threat, but also beauty, or freedom, or grace. Rarer language can’t manage such multifacetedness; its edges seem sharper, more defined, less capable of fitting smoothly into numerous figurative schema. It’s why simple language can often be more cryptic than complex language. (As an aside: legal language is difficult not primarily because of obscurity, but because it must be far, far more specific in its naming than our daily language, which is quite comfortable with rather slippery and vague naming, whose context and, in speech, physical cues fix it to the intended object.)

The meaning of Houck’s lyric would have been far clearer, then, had he been more metaphoric and used a more complex vocabulary. But meaning is boring – we have vanilla prose sentences for that. What’s the point of saying in a song what can be more readily and simply said in an interoffice memo? That’s not what a song is for.

Phosphorescent “Wolves” (2007)

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