Three things I’ve known to be true for a long time now:
- The Postal Service’s “We Will Become Silhouettes” is a much different song if you assume the phrase “pictures of you” in the first verse refers to the classic Cure song instead of actual photographs.
- Blake Sennett’s guitar solo in Rilo Kiley’s “The Execution of All Things” encapsulates the post-breakup he-said/she-said dynamic better than most lyrics about that subject.
- Any popular work of art will be misinterpreted as much as, if not more than, it’s properly interpreted.
All three of these things came up yesterday, and all three are manifestations of the same problem.
Last night, I attended the Postal Service’s show at KeyArena, along with a few friends and a local singer/songwriter named Shelby Earl, who bought my spare ticket thanks to one of those friends. As we walked from a neighborhood fine drinking establishment to the arena, Ms. Earl noted how one of the songs on her newest album was horribly misinterpreted by critics—she wrote the song from the perspective of someone who said horrible things to her, but the critics thought she was saying those things to someone else.
I was less than surprised.
“We Will Become Silhouettes” surrounds its lyrics with Jimmy Tamborello’s bleeps and bloops, Jenny Lewis’s sweet backing vocals, and enough “Bah bah bah bahs” to make the song sound almost sweet. The subject is anything but, however: The lyrics describe the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, and the titular silhouettes are nuclear shadows. In the first verse, singer Ben Gibbard describes his rations for getting through the rough times ahead: “I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food, filtered water/And pictures of you and I’m not coming out/Until this is all over.”
There’s no reason to believe Gibbard intended anything particularly metaphorical with this song; in fact, the accompanying music video suggests the most literal possible interpretation. But, one day years ago, I happened to listen to the song while The Cure’s “Pictures of You,” a song whose effects on me have been previously documented here, was fresh in my mind, and I realized that there’s a way to willfully misinterpret Gibbard’s lyrics. If you assume that phrase is a reference to the Cure song, “We Will Become Silhouettes” becomes a song not about a nuclear holocaust, but about a near-apocalyptic breakup. The first verse remains literal, the silhouettes become a metaphor for the departed lover, and the second verse describes crippling anxiety about confronting the outside world for fear of emotional outbursts.
Considering the buoyancy he displayed while performing that song last night, I am certain this interpretation is not what Gibbard intended.
As Ms. Earl, our mutual friends and I continued walking, I mentioned Rilo Kiley’s “The Execution of All Things,” the title track from the aforementioned Lewis’s former band’s second album. While “Silhouettes” can only be thought of as a breakup song with a little creativity, there’s no mistaking “Execution” for anything but: This is Lewis at her most scathing, delivering a four-minute, thirteen-second “fuck you” to her bandmate and ex-lover, Sennett. It’s so blistering, it’s almost a declaration of war; had Lewis committed any sort of physical harm against Sennett, this song almost certainly would have been brought up in the trial as evidence of premeditation.
After two verses making veiled accusations towards the man who would stand only a few feet away from her while performing the song, at the 2:25 mark, Lewis almost sighs out the line “And we’ve been talking all night…” This leads into Sennett’s sixteen-second solo, which follows the same basic melody as Lewis’s vocal verses, makes an ascending three-note step up a octave, and repeats.
This is the sound of a breakup.
I suppose a caveat is necessary here: I’ve felt this way for more than half a decade now, well before a particular breakup a couple of years ago. After that experience, I learned that my ex had lied to both our mutual friends and me about a wide variety of things; as I sat down with said friends to explain my side of events, I learned that what they had heard from her, months earlier in some cases, bore significant differences to reality as I’d experienced it. The places and people involved in certain events were the same, but what and how things were said was drastically different.
Sennett’s solo captures perfectly the idea that Lewis would have worn herself out talking to their friends about the events that led to the breakup, followed by him sitting down with the same people. His solo basically says, “I know what she’s been telling you, but here’s what actually happened.” And the song shifts from there.
Following the solo, Lewis launches right back into her attack, angrier than ever, but it somehow seems less effective. Instead of accusing Sennett of wrongdoing, she’s actively wishing him harm, threatening to murder his loved ones and hoping he suffers through sleepless nights. She still feels she’s in the right, but recognizes she’s lost the battle of public opinion.
To my knowledge, none of the details of their breakup have been made public; when the band broke up a decade later, Sennett’s comments were roughly as expository as this song’s lyrics. Still, the band co-existed for two albums after The Execution of All Things, so maybe all was not as it seemed.
I never particularly enjoyed reading the classics in school for a variety of reasons, but the one that always bothered me the most was the list of specific ways students are told they should and shouldn’t interpret writers’ works. Now, of course Animal Farm is actually about communism, and Dune‘s spice is an allegory for oil in modern society. But for every book with a clear intent, there are dozens lacking them, and those just seem to be assigned.
As much as I enjoyed The Sun Also Rises way back when, the classroom discussions I had about it in college frustrated me immensely. The common belief seems to be that the novel was heavily influenced by experiences Hemingway had in roughly the same times and places as his characters, and yet I was taught that the book is layered with meaning. The book’s Wikipedia page spends more words discussing various themes within the tale than it does summarizing the novel’s background, publication history, plot, and legacy. And, while it’s been several years since I read the book, I’m not sure if any of what people say about it is legit. What if it’s more autobiographical than people thought? What if Hemingway didn’t set out to write a grand tale about the Lost Generation, gender in the 1920s, and Paris? What if he just wanted to recount his own adventures—the way he and his friends experienced life, the way they talked, the way they drank and so forth—without incriminating anyone?
This is something I always worry about when thinking critically about others’ creative work—regardless of how much I like my own opinions and theories, I recognize they’re merely my own beliefs. Maybe Ben Gibbard really does have a cupboard with cans of food? Maybe Jenny Lewis really was talking all night? And maybe, in whatever book I read next, the love interest’s eyes aren’t symbolic of the clear sky or a calm sea.
Until that author tells me otherwise, her eyes are just blue. Sometimes, you just need a nice color.