Sunday Songs: The Joy Formidable – “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade”


The song’s opening wails like a siren, but that’s only the beginning of the danger.

I’ve been thinking about breakups a lot lately.


There’s a line, halfway through: “A calm day will come, my calm day will.” But the thought is never finished. The chorus barges in instead: “This dream is, this dream is, this dream is in a telescope now.”

Everything’s good, then everything’s gone.


A pair of lines, near the end. “You’re the greatest light, the greatest shade/It means that I can be happy for you, happy for you.” A moment of acceptance, a moment of realizing that the shadow you’re in was cast by someone else’s light. But the thought breaks down from there—the only words for the rest of the song are “Happy for you,” repeated 21 times.

I have never fallen out of love, with anyone or anything.


The first time I saw the Joy Formidable was a jam-packed day: Tutoring in the afternoon, heading to a Mariners game with a friend that evening, and then hiking from the game to my dearly beloved Crocodile (neé The Crocodile Café) for the show. When they took the stage, frontwoman Ritzy Bryan seemed demure until the instant the music started, at which point she morphed into a whirlwind of blonde hair and bombast, and I began to reconsider my longstanding claim that Karen O is the Last Great Rock Star.


I scanned a photo the other day, in preparation for reading at the Salon of Shame on Tuesday. It was the Halloween, 2002. It was the night I had my first drink. It was the night I met the blonde girls down the hall, two of whom sandwiched me in said photo.

Months later, one of those girls said something that I’ve had in mind for 12 years as the opening line of the novel I’m once again working on.

A disagreement, a trivial one at that. Food preferences, I believe. “I could never marry you,” she said, a strange thing to say considering she’d already pretty conclusively rejected my advances. When she said it, I felt remarkably unfazed, but it stuck with me as something that could be devastating in another context.


The night I bought The Big Roar, the album which “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” concludes, on vinyl, I was ambushed by an ex. Six weeks after the breakup, we’d reached a détente, splitting nights with our friends. But, shortly after I bought the album from a now-gone record store—the record store where we’d met to begin our first date, in fact—she appeared at the karaoke bar down the road on my night, the emotional and social equivalent of Germany crossing the Maginot Line. Within weeks, the only company from that night that remained by my side was the LP.


Summer, 2003. The five-bedroom University District house I shared with the girl who’d said she could never marry me, among others. A friend of the house was up from Oregon for his birthday, and a huge party was thrown in his honor. Me, I barely knew the guy, but that didn’t stop my roommates from kidnapping my laptop from my room and hooking it up to the stereo downstairs to provide the necessary soundtrack. I was with other friends when they called, declaring they were doing this, and by the time I got home to a rapidly-filling living room, it was too late to object.

Later that night, on my way back from walking home a girl I never saw again, another phone call: Did I have my laptop?

Stolen. On it, my first attempt at a novel. I’m now on my fifth try, all with the same core concept.

The next day, the girl who’d said she could never marry me gave me her version of a pep talk: “Look on the bright side, you wanted a new computer, anyway!” After I moved out of that house, we never spoke again.

Years later, I looked her up on Facebook, and saw she had a new last name. Good for her, I thought. That’s what she always wanted, anyway.


A couple nights ago, I went to a reading by a former employee of the place I used to volunteer, whose debut novel has received widespread acclaim. I hadn’t seen her since the day she left that job, and the look of shock on her face when she saw me arrive before the reading made the whole thing more than worth it.

Afterwards, while she signed my just-purchased copy of the book, she suggested we grab a drink some time and catch up. As I checked to see if I still had her number, I realized the entry would be under her old name, her maiden name, and found it easily. In the four years since I last saw her, she got married, divorced, and met someone else.

When I got home, I sent her a text saying it was good to see her, and to let me know about the drink. As I typed it, I noticed the timestamp on the previous one, which placed it three months before I first saw the Joy Formidable, in the middle of my relationship with the ex who ambushed me the night I bought the band’s first album.


A calm day will come. My calm day will.

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