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Song of the Day – and Heartbreak

I’m having my heart broken. Actually, it’s been going on all year, but the process is entering a new and powerful phase now, as I am about to leave for good the hemisphere in which my heart will stay.

Heartbreak is a funny thing. You say “she or he broke my heart” – it sounds like a discrete event. It happened then and here we are now. It seems to me, though, that it’s more like your heart is always in the process of being broken, over and over, on and on. It’s not an event that happened, or even a process that is happening. It is total – your heart was broken – and at the same time continual – your heart is being broken – and also still to come – it will break, over and over, in the next minute, the next hour, the next day. It’s outside of time.

Or… It happens every day. You wake up, groggy, look out into the grey light of morning through sleep-encrusted eyes – and your heart breaks all over again as you see the hole in your life, your world. It happens every day. And you are inconsolable, still, again.

Dar Williams, “It Happens Every Day” – from The Green World (2000)

Jonatha Brooke & The Story, “Inconsolable” – from Plumb (1995)

I’ve never studied music and I can’t play an instrument (though I’ve been trying to learn the Irish tin whistle). Attempting to put into words precisely what it is about these that makes them sad, I am reminded of Nigel, in Spinal Tap, who says of a song he’s writing that it is “in D minor, which I always find is really the saddest of all keys, really. I don’t know why, but it makes people weep instantly…”

I don’t know if these songs are in D minor, but there is clearly something in their sound that does much of the work of producing their sadness. And they did make me weep instantly last night.

Dar Williams‘ song, “It Happens Every Day” is not on the surface, in its words, an obviously sad song. Certainly it is not the conventional “heartbreak” song.

She starts out singing that “the first part of every day for me is good” and describing, with apparent pleasure, the kids playing outside her house in the morning. Where is the sadness? It seems to me that it is there as a tone, or undertone, in the music from the very beginning, even when she is singing that the day starts “good.” It comes in more powerfully near the end of the verse describing the mothers and children at the bus stop, when she observes one mother who waits until her child leaves on the bus and “then she turns away.” But it’s a small thing, and it is really the music rather than the words that alerts us to the pain here.

She sings about the college town where she lives, watching students bent over their books and “practicing their smiles.” And—it is not clear immediately whether it is her or the students—”even underlining Nabokov / when I am not in love.” It’s the first time the words have come out and spoken directly of love, and in its lack the sadness and yearning that has been there in the music since the beginning. We’ve been waiting for it—the heartbreak that the music warns us of—but it’s still not clear. We know there is more going on here than simply not being in love.

Watching the world again, she sees the students doing their work and “with every new idea, wondering if they’ve changed it all. / Then they look away…” There it is again—that moment of turning away. Not out of fear. Turning away from human connection, turning back into one’s self. And we realize that she is alone, watching a mother left alone, students studying alone, who practice their smiles in the hope of love, but then “they look away.”

It’s a complicated song, complicated about love and loss and need and sadness. About being alone, and turning away.

The narrative, the words of the song are not especially sad, though as the song progresses we get these flashes, these moments of ache—when “she turns away, “when I am not in love,” when “they look away.” But most of the work of conveying the pain and poignancy is done by that musical quality I am not equipped to describe, that “D minor.”

The end is fierce:

It happens every day, at the crossing of the street,
looking out to see what’s new and what is just the same,
and the only word for love is everybody’s name.
That will always stay.
It happens every day,
and every day will happen without you…

and we wait for her to go on, but that’s it. “Every day will happen without you.”

The whole song has been leading up to that, has been about that—about being “without you,” about a loss, a lost you, that we only learn of directly here, now, at the end, but which has been there all along, in those moments of separation and solitude, of loss. And, crucially, in the music.

Watching the students “practicing their smiles,” trying to study Nabokov when you are not in love, watching the mother send her child off to school and turn away with a pang of separation. A small loss that echoes and prefigures the larger losses, the fears of all those losses.

We’ve known all along that the song was leading up to this, because even when the words were oblique, the music told us. Even though the first part of every day is good, that moment when you are just waking, still every day will happen without you. Your heart breaks all over again. You are inconsolable. And you turn away.

Filed under: Autobiography, Song of the Day, ,

7 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick Chapman, Nick Chapman. Nick Chapman said: Heartbreak – and a Song of the Day […]

  2. Powerful thoughts about broken heartedness, I’m going through a break up too, some days are much harder than others, and I agree, its kind of an eternal state, everytime you see her name, his facebook update, etc. And while I agree that its kind of a mode of feeling, it has it source in psychology in childhood, in the loss of mother, in the loss of father that we all experience as we grow older, but I believe in the return, return of mother, return of father, not as mother and father, but as friends and self and spouse. broken heartedness is deeply rooted in our psyche but so is love and its warmth.
    dont despair! you are loved.

    • zerode says:

      Thanks for that. As for not despairing, I take your meaning, but… Well, obviously, I’ve been here before, broken up with women before, but this time… Well, there’s a lot of factors that make it seem worse.

      And I have a kind of dualistic notion about despair. In some ways, it seems precisely the right response to my situation. But I also know that – in the words of that horrible, unhelpful, insulting, infuriating, possibly correct but how would you know, trite cliché – “life goes on.” I guess if you think that, though, then you are not despairing. Despair as the absence of hope, as not buying into that cliché. But it feels to me like I am both despairing and seeing a future – neither one nor the other, both – kind of oscillating between the two from moment to moment. Love and loss are overdetermined. The heart contains multitudes…

      Listening to and writing about music while in this frame of mind (frame of heart?) is a powerful experience. Music, the process of listening to music, works in the brain in different ways from how we process other inputs, other cultural texts – going more directly to the limbic system, to the emotions. Anyone who has listened to music already knew this on some level, but scientists have started charting exactly how this works – showing it in brain scans. It’s pretty interesting stuff. Maybe neuroscience will one day have a precise answer for why “D minor… is really the saddest of all keys, really.”

  3. […] prompted me to spin this as my “Song of the Day” was the comparison/connection to my earlier discussion of Dar Williams’ “It Happens Every […]

  4. […] Here is music without words. Profoundly moving music, and music that seems to me to be speaking of loss. Not the love and heartbreak of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” nor even that of Dar Williams’ more subtle and mature take on those issues in “It Happens Every Day.” […]

  5. […] we try to deny” – of loss of autonomy, of the safety of our solitary lives… Where Dar Williams turns away, already alone, Beth Gibbons asks her lover to “turn now” – turn back and […]

  6. […] a lighthearted poem, or the final line of Dar William’s “It Happens Every Day” (here) that finally acknowledges the lost love that has haunted the poem. It can be very effective, this […]

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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