II. I WON’T DECORATE MY LOVE
Liz Phair, Nashville, off Whip-Smart (lyrics)
Liz Phair is not an artist one listens to for beauty, but Nashville is one of the most genuinely beautiful songs I know. It isn’t pretty, exactly, but it has a sparse loveliness that suits the lyrics, which are plain and gorgeous simultaneously, grounded above all in honesty, which, the song posits, is how love should be: simple, unadorned.
This is a song that sounds like what it describes. It opens with a tinkling as if of wind chimes, suggesting open windows, warm weather, soft breezes. The literal truth of this is irrelevant; the scene is set with their connotations of ease and stillness.
It takes a moment for the music to kick in, and here is what I mean when I say this song sounds like what it says: in that pause is the utter stillness of waking, before the mind has registered its own return to consciousness. A guitar strums discordantly, almost clumsily, the hint of an echo creating aural space; the slow drumbeat could barely be called a rhythm; the sprawled-out chords narrow into something tight that could almost be insistent if it weren’t so lax. This is the first stirrings of morning: hazy and slow, unconscious movement, outlines not yet clear. There’s a fuzziness to the production that coats the world in dimness, dust motes foregrounded as they drift across the sun slanting through the space beneath the blinds.
It’s almost a full minute in when Liz starts singing, in a low near-whisper that could be contained in the space between the mouth of one and the nape of the other’s neck. Nobody sparkles like you, she murmurs after musing on the compulsiveness with which people chase love, the way love becomes an abstract prize separated from its true rewards (they don’t know what they like so much about it; they just go for any shiny bauble).
That is not what this song is about. It is about what takes up residence in knees resting against each other on the subway and smiles over private jokes, in gestures thoughtful and guileless; that peculiar gentle force that brews in comfortable silences and falling into shared habits too fast. Too fast and too soon, and I’m starting to think it could happen to me like it did to you: they’ve both been through this before, they know how it can end. They know the heady rush of the early days can lead straight off a precipice, and Liz doesn’t want to fall off that cliff again - I won’t crack the door too far for anyone who’s pushing too hard on me.
But he isn’t pushing too hard, and so the door is swinging open of its own accord. That hint of fear in the lyrics is belied by the music: unhurried, almost lazy, the melody content to take its time on each syllable. Listen to Liz’s voice, thin but clear, opened farther than on any other song off Whip-Smart, with hints even of sweetness. A speaking cadence sneaks into some notes as the melody arcs up, lending it sluggishness and honesty. I won’t decorate my love, she promises, over and over; this song does not sound like the trappings of romance.
It sounds like: stretching your body up against another body, before you’ve even opened your eyes, so that the first thing you relearn on your way to wakefulness is that this person is here and thus was here, lessons taught by the artless brush of heel against ankle. Like skin-warmth, and the smell of someone else’s shampoo. Early morning traffic, garbage trucks and stores opening. It sounds like pale dawn light on the messy carpet and the alarm going off just out of reach.
It sounds like:
I can’t imagine it in better terms
than naked, half-awake, about to shave and go to work…
And I can’t either.