February 5, 2012

"Who doesn't want violence from love?"

On Monday, January 30th, one of the top-trending search terms on the web was "Love Interruption", which is the title of the first single from Jack White's upcoming debut solo album.  The song was released to the internet that morning via a brand new site, jackwhiteiii.com, with no previous announcement, though there had been whispers of hints of rumors for a few weeks of something maybe, just possibly, coming up.  Of course, the reaction in the fan community was pretty explosive, especially when the song was followed with the announcement of the new album and an accompanying world tour. For anyone who's into his music, that's a helluva lot of excitement to absorb at once, so it took a day or two for the single itself to sink into my head.  After some extended listening, though, I quickly realized that it's quintessential Jack-- Deceptive in its simplicity, leaving one caught up in comparisons, contrasts, and contradictions.   

The first contradiction is between the music and the lyrics.  Musically, Love Interruption is hauntingly sweet, reminiscent of the White Stripes tune I'm Bound To Pack It Up, from the album De Stijl, released back in 2000.  The two songs share a fairly simple arrangement of acoustic guitar which is layered with electric violin in the earlier song, clarinet and Wurlitzer organ in the more recent.  The themes of both are expressed through plaintive vocals, with Love Interruption enriched by backup from the gorgeous voice of Ruby Amanfu (who Jack had previously enlisted for two other Third Man Records projects-- As a live backup singer for Wanda Jackson and again on the Blue Series single from Seasick Steve).   

But the comparison of those two songs ends there and the next that sprang into my mind was Jack's recent cover of U2's Love Is Blindness, as much for the contrast as for the similarity.  Both depict love as an overwhelming force, but the dramatically passionate vocal delivery of Love Is Blindness is an antithesis to the gentleness of Love Interruption.  

A more apt comparison, though, one that gets to the heart of Love Interruption, might actually be with the old bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, who played and sang with a delicacy that belied the violent lyrics of some of the songs he performed.

That's the crux, the element that makes Love Interruption something insidious-- This simple and tender sounding song contains some of the most starkly dark imagery Jack's written yet.  The very first two lines reflect this intense contradiction of tenderness and violence:

I want love to roll me over slowly 
Stick a knife inside me and twist it all around 
I want love to grab my fingers gently 
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground

The lyrics go on to list metaphorical ways in which he wants love to destroy him and overwhelm other relationships.  In seeming contrast to this, though, the chorus repeats an unconditional refrain of "I won't let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me anymore".  To me, this was the primary contradiction of the song and it left me baffled. 

The next evening, though, I had the chance to ask Jack about this when he unexpectedly popped into the chatroom of the Third Man Records Vault while I was there.  My comment apparently left him baffled in return, as he countered with "what contradiction?".  I pointed out the seeming inconsistency between wanting such violence from love, but not allowing it to disrupt or corrupt.  He again came back at me with a question-- "who doesn't want violence from love?" (Which prompted someone else to ask "so you like it rough?", to which he replied "no, I like it real".  Again, quintessential Jack.)  I would have gone on to ask how he feels it's possible to prevent something so powerful and intense from being an interruption, but the chatroom was filling up and he's usually there with an agenda, so I let it drop.  But his reply made me re-think the relationship between the verses and chorus.  I began to consider that perhaps the song was about how he (or the character he'd created) wants love to be hard and challenging, to push him to a breaking point, while at the same time learning to rise above that difficulty and not succumb to it.  At one of the two Jack-related message boards, I found someone who felt similarly, but who expressed it with a thoroughness I hadn't considered--

I think I would have to agree on Jack's point of "who doesn't want violence in love" and flattop and Kali's interpretation of finding a way to have intensity without being thrown off track. Love (and relationships) is something that is, and should be, forceful, extreme, intense, and (sometimes) painful. there are definitely highs and lows and extremes on both ends of the spectrum, otherwise it's just kind of bland and uninvolving. It's not like you're always going to agree with someone you love, and I personally don't buy that "we never fight or disagree", lovey-dovey crap that you see in some relationships. who wants to be completely subservient and complacent in a relationship?

I think people are going to get hung up on the imagery of the song and stuck in the typical idea of violence because of the imagery, while forgetting that some words have more than one definition. something that is violent isn't necessarily hurtful as the song's imagery conjures, but love is something violent (even if it doesn't come with the usual idea of what violence is)... forgive the dictionary post, but:

3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force
(the violence of the storm)
   b : vehement feeling or expression : fervor; also : an instance of such action or feeling
   c : a clashing or jarring quality : discordance

1 : marked by extreme force or sudden intense activity (a violent attack)

2 a : notably furious or vehement (a violent denunciation)
   b : extreme, intense (violent pain) (violent colors)
3 : caused by force : not natural (a violent death)

4 a : emotionally agitated to the point of loss of self-control (became violent after an insult)

Of course, though, not everyone will draw the same conclusions that I and a few others have.  That's the magic of truly effective lyrics, when metaphors are obscure enough that the words can inspire a personal meaning for the listener that might be quite different from what the songwriter had in mind.  Jack's a master of that sort of poetic ambiguity and it continuously puzzles me that his talent as a lyricist is still so often overlooked in favor of the frontman charisma and insane guitar skill he's universally known for.  It seems he might feel this way himself, as he mentioned in an interview the day after the single's release that he wanted the first single to be "a lyrical taste", that he "wanted the words to resonate", before getting to the sort of songs that people expect from him.  Personally, I think that's a mistake that people too often make with Jack--  having expectations.  The only thing I've come to expect from him is to always be surprised.  This song most definitely accomplished that, though I would have been equally astonished if it hadn't.  And knowing that there are more surprises coming up has got me violently excited.