Sunday, April 11, 2010

One of Those Really Good Songs

Josh Ritter--"Girl In The War" (mp3)

I got the song on Thursday; a student gave me the CD. I didn't play it at first, as I am slow getting to things. And then I got to it. And I couldn't stop playing it. I've probably played "Girl In The War" 10 times since Thursday. That's 5 times a day, unheard of for me.

Of course, I thought it was a brand new CD. Immediately, I was thinking "This is the best new song I've heard this year." But, alas, as in most things, especially musically, I am behind. "Girl In The War" is 4-5 years old, which makes sense, I guess, given its subject matter.

Ritter plays a number of lyrical games in the song. Like the opening lines:

Peter said to Paul you know all those words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go
But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war man I wonder what it is we done

You can't group Peter and Paul together without sending most listeners shooting back to the Bible for reference, but these characters don't really play their biblical roles, except that the "words we wrote/Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go." Suggesting, perhaps, no one is acting the way they should? And the cryptic comparison that "talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun?" Everything, top to bottom, seems to be pure foolishness.

But what drives this song, at least for me, is the simple, repeated statement, "I got a girl in the war..." I had forgotten to ponder what that role reversal would be like. Call me sexist, if you like, but the fact that the girl is the one in danger, while "Peter" is at home and doesn't know what to do, make the song more poignant, more potentially tragic:

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire
But I got a girl in the war Paul the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

By the time the song reaches stanza, the words belie the gentle melody. Whatever Peter may have once expected God, religion, angels, you name it, to do to intervene, he doesn't have much faith that will happen now, even cursing the helpless angels to Hell in a mock parallel Paradise Lost.

Because the keys to the Kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom
And the angels fly around in there but we can't see them
I got a girl in the war Paul I know that they can here me yell
If they can't find a way to help her they can go to Hell
If they can't find a way to help her they can go to Hell

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire
But I got a girl in the war Paul her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain

Questioning the power and effectiveness of God in a time of war is hardly a new concept, but ways that Ritter keeps knocking us off balance ("the keys to the Kingdom are lost inside.....the Kingdom") with language, showing us man's separation from God, using the deteriorating chemical properties of champagne to imply the likely outcome of the situation, reveals a songwriter doing more than writing catchy pop songs. Like the best poetry, the song wouldn't seem to hold up under careful, analytical examination, but it creates its own logic which easily overwhelms pure reason. Wow.

4 comments:

troutking said...

Plus he likes the Boss and the feeling is mutual. Follow the link to see him cover Tomorrow Never Knows from WOAD with Bruce in the audience.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S9wryAPQRE&feature=player_embedded

Thom Anon said...

Killer album. Thin Blue Flame is one of my fave go-to's.

Glad it finally came across your radar.

-T

Bob said...

I'm preachin' the gospel of Josh Ritter, T.A.

Anonymous said...

Tanu put "To the Dogs or Whoever" on his New Orleans mix years ago. "Rumors" and"Good Man" (on my 2010 Big Easy mix) are good ones too. Josh Ritter has made a few appearances at Ipod Wars...