For most people, I suspect that it's the music that matters most. But I'm a lyrics man. Simon Frith once asked, with plenty of justification, "Why do songs have words?" I've been working on a response for over a decade, but all I've come up with is a lame, "For people like me, Simon."
Sure, I feel the music. But it's the words that pin me down fastest and longest. Ever since it came out -- June 24, 1999, if I'm not mistaken -- the song "Ann Don't Cry" off Pavement's final Terror Twilight album has been one of the two or three songs that run through my head most frequently.
At first, it was the opening lines: "The damage has been done/ I am not having fun anymore." I love the weighty pause between "done" and the start of the next line, which conveys the effort to scramble for an explanation. In what does "damage" consist? Why has it already been done? I'm equally taken with "anymore," which disrupts the neatness of the rhymed couplet and pushes the listener forward.
As the song presses on, the lyrics get less direct, more like the ones Pavement fans expect. The first-person speaker becomes unstable. Could he be switching back and forth between perspectives? Some of the most memorable lines sound like an effort to put on a brave face by playing the icy wit: "But your vocal display/Caught me off guard/ Cold, cold boy with American heart." It's like he's singing about his own singing.
For every moment like this, though, there are two or three in which the immediacy of the lyrical content makes postmodern irony seem like a poor defense strategy: "Tied, tied, tied to the tracks/Just remember the facts/Repeat until you're running aground." Although the first-person speaker may want to get surreal, he find himself tongue-tied, repeating himself when he should be moving on to richer lexical pastures.
At this point in "Ann Don't Cry," the music gradually takes over, as the repeating guitar figure that's been going since that first "anymore" struggles to keep danger -- represented by low guitar notes wobbling like a wet rubber band -- at bay. When the words return, with the refrain, "Ann, don't you cry," the danger disappears and an easy bass groove gradually asserts itself against that original guitar figure.
Then the lead guitar follows the singer, as he moves from "Don't you/Cry, Southern lover" to "Don't you/Believe in/What they say/Believe in/What they say/Believe in/What they/Believe in/What they/Believe in/What they/Say about me/Sweet Ann/Sweet Ann." The melody climbs to the second syllable of "believe," then cascades downward, getting cut off abruptly at "they" twice before the final drop to "say about me."
There are dozens of Pavement songs that revolve around a double-meaning, whether it's the ambiguity of pronunciation -- "career" or "Korea"? -- or the way enjambment struggles against the musical current, as it does here with the "don't" that's in danger of being forgotten by the time we hear the fourth or fifth "believe". Does he want those things to be believed after all?
It's fitting that the short coda following "Sweet Ann" provides no resolution. All we can hope for is more of the same. That's not a terrible prospect, mind you, since the song is pleasing to the ear. But the absence of a climax strikes me as more honest, not to mention troubling, than the indication of a way out would have. The perfect aspect of "has been done" indicates a possibility permanently foreclosed. "My heart is not a wide-open thing/I know," he sings towards the middle of the song. The present tense is telling. Maybe it was "wide-open" in the past, maybe not. But it's certainly not going to be that way again. The future only holds the prospect of a petering out, however graceful. The notes at the end descend from "believe" to resignation.
I'm sure there are lots of good songs about becoming middle-aged. "Ann Don't Cry" is the one for me, though. If you decide to check it out, be sure to listen on headphones for the maximum effect. This is music to swim around in, even if you end up going over the falls.