Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Love songs or something else?

Around Valentine's Day, I started writing a post about The Beatles' greatest love songs, but I eventually scrapped it because of an uncertainty: I didn't know if my top picks – "In My Life" and "Two of Us" – actually qualified as love songs. Both contain affectionate sentiments that typify a conventional love song, but there are other themes at work too – themes that suggest multiple aims and multiple subject matters. Let me elaborate.
On "In My Life," John opens with a nostalgic rumination: "There are places I remember/All my life/Though some have changed." And so it goes for the rest of the first verse. John sings of places and people that have come and gone but remain meaningful to him. Nostalgia dominates the early going. It isn't until the second verse that he directly addresses someone: "But of all these friends and lovers/There is no one (who) compares with you." Here the lyric seems to be moving in a more concrete direction, but one question never gets answered: To whom is John speaking? Is it a friend or a lover? It's not clear. Even when he sings, "In my life/I love you more," the context doesn’t illuminate the precise nature of his love. John could simply be honoring a dear friend. He may love that person, but that doesn't make "In My Life" a "love song" in the familiar sense. Memory, the past, undefined but deep affection - these are the concerns of "In My Life." John himself said the song was rooted in reflections on his childhood.
"Two of Us" is perhaps a more interesting case. The lyric doesn't contain any straightforward expressions of romantic love. The word "love," in fact, is nowhere to be found. Rather, Paul paints tender and almost gauzy little scenes of togetherness - "riding nowhere," "sending postcards," "wearing raincoats" (in the sun, no less) - that seem to be drawn from real life, i.e., his relationship with Linda. And Paul has stated she was the song's primary inspiration. However, what to make of the line, "You and I have memories/Longer than/The road that stretches out ahead"? Or "You and me chasing paper/Getting nowhere"? Paul hadn't known Linda that long, and "chasing paper" calls to mind The Beatles' complicated business dealings. If not Linda, then who? John, of course. Thus, "Two of Us" operates on dual levels: it's a song of romantic love and brotherly love, paying tribute to both Linda and John. There are two sets of two. One would help to define Paul's future, while the other would soon belong to his past.
If these interpretations are accurate, I think they speak to the nimbleness and dexterity of John and Paul as songwriters. To fashion a workable and compelling lyric that expresses more than one kind of love is no easy task. "In My Life" and "Two of Us" probably aren't the only examples.

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