Friday, March 7, 2008

Will the Night

The original recorded version of "Will the Night," as much as I love it, seems painfully perverse to anyone (and this is going to include almost everybody who wasn't a Low fan back in 1997) who has heard the much more available and popular version on Secret Name. The original was, in Alan's words, "recorded on a mini-cassette recorder with us hovering over, then played back through a lot of reverb." The effect, more than any other song in Low's discography, is to make "Will the Night" sound like something you'd find on an old cassette tape in an abandoned, possibly haunted house. Only instead of creepy, it's kind of wholesome and comforting - if there are ghosts, you could picture them using their poltergeist powers to pull out a chair for you to sit in when you're having a hard day, not tossing shit across the room.

The video they made for it seems to acknowledge that feeling, and if you're only familiar with the later take on "Will the Night" (or even if you've never heard either) you really should watch it; this song, more than any other, represents the terminal point of Low's ambition to play as softly and slowly as possible (although I would argue that such an ambition is a smaller part of their music than conventional accounts suggest), and it's kind of bracing to experience it.

I am an acknowledged latecomer to Low's music, so by the first time I heard the Songs For a Dead Pilot version (where, and I want to emphasize this, it leads off the EP, which is pretty bold) I already had the later one memorized. But I don't know how easy it would be to tell what they're singing if you didn't already know it. The lyrics are the same as the later version (as far as I can tell), which makes "Will the Night" one of the few unambiguous Low songs:

Will the night
Last forever?
By my side
Cause tonight, together
Would be divine
But once it's gone
Your face to hide
Against the sun
The moon
Am I
On the other side
So blind
So long

The EP version has Alan and Mimi singing this (sounding particularly gorgeous on the momentary, soaring pause during "On the other side"), with maybe a bit of guitar being played. They're been mixed very, very low, so between the reverb and room sound and everything else it sounds like they're maybe down the hall from you. It's one of the few clear love songs in Low's repertoire, and it's fitting that they sound like they're singing it to one another, far away from everything that doesn't matter. If that was all we had of "Will the Night," it'd be a particularly poignant oddity in Low's work, a lovely song given a remarkable treatment. But I think it'd also be a little frustrating - the EP version is beautiful, and I'm glad they tried it that way (Alan's contention that "sometimes i think we should do a whole record this way" is actually one I kind of wished they had followed up on), but even in such a muted form you can tell the melody of the song is one for the ages. It's so good, and it's one of their favourite songs (as Alan has said more than once), that it would be baffling and frustrating if such an obscure, completists-only fate was all the band had in store for "Will the Night."

Thankfully, a few years later Low decided that "a coherent version" of the song was warranted, and it became the anchor of Secret Name. Located between "Days Of..." and "Home" (both of which have been previously written up under this tag), it takes on a disproportionate weight of the album despite being a slim 2:23. Alan takes lead this time, although Mimi does back him up, with vocals and with a brief kettle drum surge to give the latter part of the song some heft. Other than that, the track is all strings; Alan starts singing "Will the night..." and instead of the expected guitar a string quartet (I think) starts up. I love strings, so I may be biased, but this is a perfect setting for the song. Despite its lack of a chorus or really any real structure the sentiment and melody of the song feel kind of like throwbacks to a more refined and romantic age of popular music (I couldn't really picture Sinatra doing it, but Alan sells the song short when he jokes "maybe barbara streisand will cover it some day").

It would have been good with guitar, or even just vocals, but those perfectly calibrated strings wrapping around Alan's voice (as Mimi's voice does) and that one, brief surge of bass drums - the first time I heard it, "Will the Night" in its 'coherent' form felt like a classic, and I haven't wavered from that belief since. Its lyrics speak movingly towards both the feeling we have when we're in love and the bittersweet certainty that something - time, space, responsibilities, life, etc - will prevent us from just ignoring the world in favour of our Other. But it's not a disappointed song; that lament of how we're "so blind" on the other side isn't despairing, and the closing shift from "goodbye" to "goodnight" acknowledges that they'll see each other soon. And implicit I think in "Will the Night" is that the fact that you can't just wall the two of you away from the world all the time is probably for the best, and makes the time you have together that much sweeter. It's a very, very romantic song, which makes the discussion about in the documentary included in A Lifetime of Temporary Relief all the funnier (I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it). On the short list of songs I would want to have for a first dance at my wedding should I ever get married, there are not one but two Low songs. The other, and the one that's both more appropriate and slightly (I think) more likely to be approved by someone else is "Closer," but some small part of me thinks of the occasion whenever "Will the Night" - either version - plays.


Inverarity said...

I can't imagine the one without the other. I think I would like the Secret Name version, sounding a bit uncomfortably like "Unchained Melody" and lacking any noticeable perversity, much less - at least on first listen - than if I didn't have the Dead Pilot version playing in my head at the same time.

The perversity, though, of burying that melody would seem unforgivable if I didn't hear the unfiltered, pure album version echoing in my mind when I put on the EP. It's the combination that makes for one of my favorite Low songs.

BTW, I'm very eager to hear your take on "Cue the Strings" and how it relates to this one.

Ian said...

To be completely honest, I considered not mentioning this one at all when I do that one, just out of perversity. But I probably won't.

And what, you don't like "Unchained Melody"?

Inverarity said...

Oh, I like it, but the similarity is striking and might seem a little too extensive if not for the skew of the Dead Pilot version.

Michelle said...

Utterly torn between delight that I've found this blog and grief at its apparent demise. Have been a Low fan only since The Great Destroyer but long since bought all of it... so why is it just in the last 24 hours that "Will the Night" (Secret Name version) has grabbed me by the throat and won't let go? Glad to have had your thoughts on it; sad I won't ever get to read you on "Cue the Strings," because that definitely seems like the third part of the conversation that the two "Will the Nights" began.

Ian said...

Michelle! Thanks so much for the comment. I've been busy with work and falling in love, but it's not dead... hibernating. It will be back (although probably on tumblr). Watch this space and I promise there will be news eventually.