Monday, May 28, 2007


Attempting to repay the aid of a kind TMW,TMW reader I asked if there were any songs he wanted to see me cover sooner rather than later; and while I'm chagrined that "Don't Understand" was one of them (as the old post is pretty wince-inducing for me), I was happy to see that one of the songs he asked for, "Swingin'," was one I was considering doing today anyways.

Although I think Things We Lost in the Fire and probably Secret Name are more welcoming to the new listener* than Long Division, in some ways I feel that the latter is Low's most lovable album. Maybe it's that inside the only real message aside from minimalist credits is "Thanks for the patience and floorspace..." or that Zak's stark cover image is one of my favourites. Or the fact that there's actual long division displayed on the CD. But athough that kind of thing has a surprisingly large effect on my affection for albums (and I think the phenomenon is more wide-spread than people would like to admit), I'm still willing to mostly credit the music. When I was getting into Low I thought of The Curtain Hits the Cast as the best early period album, and I certainly still like that one, but Long Division is a much gentler and more consonant record (not to mention it lacks anything like "Do You Know How to Waltz?"); even the darker songs are more forgiving than elsewhere in Low's discography (to these ears, at least - "Shame" is a good example of this). Which makes my experience of "Swingin'" even weirder - as much as I love it, and as much as it was (along with "Shame" and "Violence") one of my entryways into eventually loving Long Division, I can't help but totally misconstrue it. Let's look at the lyrics, again extremely short for a good sized song (just over four minutes):

Don't look up
I'll have to dictate from the ground
Don't mind the sound
It's all familiar by now
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high

Unimpressed by my first draft
She's a sinker
I should have taught her how to swim
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high

Why on earth would I suffer from the persistant feeling that Alan sings "Swingin'" as a man in the process of being hanged? Maybe it's the way Alan bites off that last droning "so high" as the mellotron blurts to a close (Kramer's work, and the only track on the record so gifted). I guess the refrain could at least suggest hanging, and if you really stretch it that second verse could suggest a murder or some sort of criminal negligence, and if you're going that far then "Don't mind the sound / It's all familiar by now" is pretty chilling. But I don't buy my interpretation for a second.

It came about partly because with most music that's new for me I tend to only really pick up a few lines here and there, getting acquainted with the song's lyrics more fully only later on, after I already like or dislike the track. Something about the steady thrum of "Swingin'" combined with the refrain and Alan's occasionally teeth-clenched delivery of it makes me think of it as a Secret Miracle-style moment frozen in time, Alan telling someone not to look up as he prepares for the lunge through the trap door. Given the number of listens it takes me to 'get' Low songs the fact that it's preceded on record by "Throw Out the Line" probably helped put the image of rope into my head, and then we're swingin', so to speak.

As for what it's really about I have no clue aside from some dim thoughts of writer's block and playgrounds, and the song backgrounds page is no help at all (just some notes about the mellotron, the chords here hurting Alan's hand and Vernon Yard being unimpressed with Alan's first draft). The singing is both slightly angry and perversely unfazed, just as I'd imagine one of Alan's narrators would be at the prospect of violent death - Mimi is kind of present in the background, I think, but this really is Alan's show. The really weird thing is, even though I know my impression is wrong it doesn't go away as it normally would. Part of me is just as convinced today as it ever was that the singer of "Swingin'" is about to be hanged by the neck until dead, probably for good reason.

*Sure enough, Erik was intrigued enough by this and my passing on of Drums and Guns (which he found a bit offputting) to ask me to pass on some other Low; after a few listens to Things We Lost in the Fire, I think he's coming around to them.


Nicholas said...

Thanks! For me this is a favorite not just because it's one of the most deceptively gentle songs Low have produced, but specifically how "and I'm Swingin' so high," a theoretically positive sentiment, sounds totally doom-laden and lacerating.

Ian said...

Definitely - it's right up there with "Violence" as far as deceptive gentleness goes, and that's a trick they pull quite often, eh?