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Song of the Day: Ani DiFranco, “You Had Time” (updated)

Update: fixed link to the song

Ani DiFranco features prominently on a wide range of my playlists – from the one for politics to “faves,”  from love songs to the one for songs that seem to be about me. And of course the playlists for love, for ex-girlfriends and for heartbreak, on all of which appears this song:

out of range.jpg

Ani DiFranco, “You Had Time” – from Out of Range (1994)

Village Voice described the album as “Pound for pound, the funniest, hurtingest Ani DiFranco outing thus far.” Certainly true at the time, though perhaps no longer. I might pick Up Up Up Up Up Up (1999) – or possibly the earlier Puddle Dive (1993) – as funniest, and Little Plastic Castle (1998) as hurtingest – though there’s plenty of competition for the latter title. But while Out of Range may no longer be the funniest or hurtingest, it remains clearly one of the finest and most consistent of all DiFranco’s albums, and my usual choice for introducing anyone to her work.

A common critical take on DiFranco is that she is perhaps too productive for her own good. Her output of an album every year or so means that each album includes a few less successful tracks; if she put albums out a bit less often, the argument goes, she’d be able to pack each album with a stronger selection of tracks. Rolling Stone once described her work as slack, meaning I think her musical craft within each song, but while many might quibble with that, it is true that her album construction, her willingness to edit herself at that level, does seem to many to be… slack.

The common response of Ani’s fans to this critical take is: phooey. They – I – would rather have more albums from her than less, and a second-rate track or somewhat uneven album by Ani is more engaging and interesting than most of the other stuff that’s out there. I think what’s going on here actually – in the disconnect between the critical and fan responses to Ani’s work – is a conflict between different ideas of musical production and consumption, between ideas of what music is and how it should be, how it should work in our culture/society. But that’s a topic I will have to defer to another time, another column…

One of the things, though, that makes Out of Range so successful and such a good introduction to Ani’s work is that there’s less filler, fewer minor tracks on it than on any of her other albums. Except perhaps for Little Plastic Castles – which I tend to feel may be her solidest album from a purely musical/critical perspective, but which seems to me… it’s difficult to say – the least Ani of all her albums? Less typical, anyway. Out of Range is very typical of Ani’s work in the 1990s, archetypal even – and so a great place to start with her music, even though she has been moving in different directions in her more recent work.

I suppose, really, that Canon, her two-disc collection of “canonical” tracks – a “greatest hits” for someone who has never had a hit in the conventional sense – is the obvious choice for an introduction to Ani’s work, but I am a bit old school – I tend to prefer to discover artists and their music in the way that they discovered and created it, album by album, rather than in compilations. Out of Range has a coherence to it that I find appealing in that way. And, of course, the slacker tracks on any album are part of Ani’s work too, and you miss that aspect of the relationship between Ani and her audience with Canon.

Well, so much for the album – what of the song – what of “You Had Time”?

The song begins so quietly – just Ani plinking at the piano – a chord, a fitful trail of notes.  But soon a tune begins to emerge, a melodic line in a minor key, bittersweet and introspective, each passage a sort of falling away.

Caveat: “You Had Time” was one of the “31 songs” featured in the book of that name by Nick Hornby (published asSongbook in the USA) from a few years back (2003), though I knew the song long before that, having bought the album when it first came out. I got the book when it first came out, too, and don’t really recall, now, specifics of what Hornby said about the song, but I am such a shameless, devoted fan of Hornby’s work that it is quite likely I will be unintentionally plagiarizing in what follows…

When the acoustic guitar comes in and picks up the tune, it’s so sweet and tender that I teared up – right there on the platform of my commuter train this morning, even listening to it for the umpteenth time.

But while I have listened to it umpteen times, I hadn’t listened to it for quite a while when I started writing this. In my memory, that opening search for a tune, for a way into the song, a way to say what she needs to say, had taken ages. In actuality, the guitar comes in at 2:06 and the vocals at 2:31, a bit under halfway through the whole length of the track (5:49).

The story that the lyrics (included in full below) tell, once Ani starts singing, is personal, as so many of her best songs are, and invites an autobiographical reading, again as do so many of her songs. She’s heading home at the end of a concert tour (her fingers are sore and her voice is too), and thinking about the “you” who awaits her, and what she is going to say to that you, in answer to the question “what did you decide.” She imagines the whole scene – the meeting at the airport, the drive home, conversation in the car. She wonders, “how can I go home / with nothing to say?” And she hears the reproach: “you said you needed time / and you had time.”

Time for what? Time to decide, time to come up with something to say. But about what? The song doesn’t come out and tell us directly, but the answer is there from the beginning in the music, and there as well indirectly in the lyrics:

you are a china shop
and i am a bull
you are really good food
and i am full

In other words, the fateful “You’re a wonderful person, but…” But I don’t love you. But I’m leaving.

In retrospect, we can understand that plinking opening, that search for a tune on the piano – with the notes shifting left then right when you listen to it in headphones – as her trying to figure out what to say, how to say what she needs to say when “everything’s been said.” And the guitar coming in, that sweet sadness, is what she comes up with. It’s not bad – I don’t know that I’ve ever been left so tenderly, so regretfully.

One of Ani’s great gifts – perhaps her greatest – is her ability to craft marvelous pop lyrics, to get that aphorism, that turn of phrase, that memorable line and make it sing. Part of it is her ear for rhyme, which she uses to great effect to twist the knife or drive home the point, put a stop at the end of one of her great lines, as here in the rhyme of bull/full in the second verse (above), or at the end of the second and third lines in the third verse, or of course in the rhyme of say/way in the repeated question that frames the whole song: “How can I go home / with nothing to say? / I know you’re going to look at me that way.” This song doesn’t have any of the lyric pyrotechnics of, say, “32 Flavors” or “Untouchable Face”, largely I think because it is so introspective, and working hard at being gentle about hard things, but it’s so crafted in its story, a perfect gem.

If you want your heart to ache, with happiness and sadness, or to hear the sound of me falling in and out of love, you can make a little playlist of four songs from Out of Range: hell yeah, overlap, falling is like this, and you had time. In that order, the order in which they occur on the album, beginning with the tender, suppressed but jubilant excitement of “hell yeah” and ending with the leaving of “you had time.” Then play it, over and over.

For more…

Lyrics…

“you had time”

 

how can i go home

with nothing to say

i know you’re going to look at me that way

and say what did you do out there

and what did you decide

you said you needed time

and you had time

 

you are a china shop

and i am a bull

you are really good food

and i am full

i guess everything is timing

i guess everything’s been said

so i am coming home with an empty head

 

you’ll say did they love you or what

i’ll say they love what i do

the only one who really loves me is you

and you’ll say girl did you kick some butt

and i’ll say i don’t really remember

but my fingers are sore

and my voice is too

 

you’ll say it’s really good to see you

you’ll say i missed you horribly

you’ll say let me carry that

give that to me

and you will take the heavy stuff

and you will drive the car

and i’ll look out the window and make jokes

about the way things are

 

how can i go home

with nothing to say

i know you’re going to look at me that way

and say what did you do out there

and what did you decide

you said you needed time

and you had time

Filed under: Song of the Day, , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. wow what a song, and a great post about it. thanks for your interpretation. if i wasnt in a room with people right now id probably be crying.

    • zerode says:

      thanks – yeah, it’s a pretty great song… ani has so many incredible songs, but that one stands out in all sorts of ways. i can see why nick hornby picked it.

  2. [...] All of which inevitably suggests comparisons with Ani DiFranco. Ani must be a sort of bugaboo for singer-songwriters who began their career in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the inevitable point of comparison, and a hard act to follow. But in fact, beyond what is in that bare outline, I see few points of comparison between the two. Thorne’s music just sounds different. That said, there is no escaping the overlap between the following song and Ani’s “You Had Time,” about which I wrote recently… [...]

  3. mindfulearful says:

    It’s beautiful–one of my favourite songs. Ever.

    • zerode says:

      Mine too. That whole album is one of my favorite of all times – and that song is really something special. Did you read the Nick Hornby book where he talks about it?

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Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. 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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