Monday, April 20, 2009

Little Argument With Myself

This is a song, I think, about being angry with yourself. Or at least, I'm angry with myself right now (I'm unemployed and struggling not to waste my days, and what do I do? Fall back into playing Civilization all afternoon and evening, goddamn it), and "Little Argument With Myself" is the Low song that springs to mind.

It's a brief song, occurring just after the most terrifying song on Trust (well, at least tied for most terrifying... we still have to get to "The Lamb"). Frequent blog interlocutor Inverarity (whose blog is better than this one, and not just because he's been more timely with updates) said in the comments here, "I find "John Prine"/"Little Argument with Myself" to be one of the most riveting and wrenching pairs in the catalog," and he's got a point. I mean, obviously this track is in some ways a relief when it comes on, but you can't really pull out of your defensive posture until "La La La Song," can you? But whereas "John Prine" is gnomically horrifying, sealing off even the possibility of a little light, "Little Argument With Myself" at least begins and ends gently.*

For once songmeanings might have actually added something to my understanding of a song - having been raised secular, I do worry sometimes that I miss Biblical stuff in Low songs, and one elwyn5150 tells me that the narrative here stems from Genesis 15:5. The song starts with just Alan intoning "I want to believe, yes I want to believe" twice, Mimi joining in the second time. Only a typically retiring guitar line underlies their voices. As the meat of the song starts up, that guitar at first ebbs out of view before coming in with greater force along with a tuba(!) and an increasingly strident vocal performance from Alan and Mimi, and eventually the rising tide of cymbals and a kick drum...

Just keep counting the stars
Like someday you'll find out
Just how many there are

They don't actually start yelling, but it's so intense I don't quite now how to represent it without capitals. In isolation it's actually still a pretty restrained song, and just as it crescendos everything dies back down for the two of them to repeat "but I want to believe, yes I want to believe / 'cause there's nothing as sad
as a man on his back / counting stars" as the track fades out.

I don't need to talk about how bitterly this narrative seems to treat faith and self-delusion, do I? It's an awfully dark take on the doubt Abraham must have felt when God told him how many kids he'd have, even for Low. And while it never gets that loud or that harsh, after the end of "John Prine" even the thought of someone yelling at you, even a little, is likely to interfere negatively with your bruised psyche. Alan is mostly yelling at himself (well, the narrator), but there's collateral damage. And he hates that he's just a man on his back counting stars, but there's something almost Kierkegaardian about the song (and honestly, I imagine there are ways in which Alan's faith is deeply indebted to Kierkegaard): He wants, or needs, to believe so that he's not just wasting his time, and the force of that belief, of that leap of faith, is sufficient for it to be true. I hope it's not the case that the middle section here isn't just a strawman version of the bluff empiricist, mocking the person of faith; given Alan's own doubts and fears, it deserves to be (and feels more) internal. And that, of course, is why it's a little argument with yourself, the struggle we have with the internal voices of doubt (whether it's about religion or not). Separate from Abraham and Genesis, the song is a wonderful metaphor for something we all do; I don't count stars, but there are things I do because I am basically taking it on faith that they are the right things for me to be doing with my life right now. And every so often part of your brain sneaks up and tells you, you're just a man on your back counting stars.

*(all that being said, I'm still terrifically curious to hear more about the connection Inverarity hears between the two songs...)


Inverarity said...

The reference to Abraham is plausible, but I'd discount it as the main way to look at the song. What the song appears to be about on its face, straightforward doubt, is more compelling anyway. "Then we call can go home" certainly doesn't fit with the biblical interpretation.

The final words of each song stab the heart, but "Little Argument With Myself" certainly hits home with me more personally. I vacillate between two interpretations of the song: whether the star-counting is simply laboring on some uncompletable and probably pointless task, or just a contemplation of whether there's any point to existence. Both are humbling experiences, and I've had a lot of experience on both counts.

I don't remember what connection if any I saw between this and "John Prine." They both traffic in existential dread, but then most of Low's best work does. The horror of the former is at the realization of the insignificance of you and your family and all you've ever known and done; the horror of the latter is bound up in more anger and nausea at society and social structures. "John Prine" is the scarier song, but it pales somewhat before the scale of this one. Between them, though, you have a double-header of negative emotions to rival any pair of songs I've ever heard.

Aside: Trust certainly did some interesting things with instruments and arrangements. It might be interesting if they ever try that again.

Ian said...

Finally! Secretly I decided not to make another post until you commented.

I don't think the Abraham thing is really the 'meaning' of the song, but I think there is resonance here; and actually, I'd say "and we all can go home" does sort of dovetail a little, as if the whole thing isn't successful, they won't all be going home again, if you see my meaning.

I actually took the star-counting to be an attempt at explaining the inexplicable - science reaching out to define God, or some such thing. To contradict what I said in the original entry a bit (and I'm amazed this didn't make it into the entry, actually), I sometimes feel as if when Alan sings "just keep counting the stars, like some day you'll find out" he's going after people who only rely on things they can touch or prove, things they can count. They want to count; he wants to believe. Which brings us back to Kierkegaard, of course...

Maashu said...

Low is an amazing enigma, and I've been thinking about this particular song a lot lately. I'll spare you the details, but I'll give you my interpretation.

I think this has to do with a person who's determined, but determined to try to do something next to impossible, in secret anticipation that the outcome can only be failure. It's about staring up at a mountain and thinking, I'm going to climb that even if it kills me.

And it does.

Ian said...

Ha! I like that.

anerda said...

Oh, I still really like this blog.

Ian said...

Well, we may have just achieved critical mass to get me off my lazy ass and updating it again...

Richard said...

I liked this song so much I named a gig night after it - see

Ian said...

And a good one too - Alasdair Roberts, Anni Rossi, Rachel Unthank, Picastro (whom I love)! If I'd lived in the area, that is the sort of thing I'd have gone to regularly.

Andres said...

The first thing that came to my mind when I read the lyrics was Fox Mulder.

Ian said...

I can't believe that never occurred to me.