Music deals to varying degrees with the issues of commitment and unrequited love. As I’ve written before, R&B gives us some of the most wonderful affirmations of serial monogamy (see Justin Timberlake, “My Love”; Beyoncé Knowles, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”; Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”). Rock music, less so. Songwriters with guitars do a better job of either posturing as the dominant sex, conquering any and all, or of playing out the part of the spurned, luckless lover.
Into that latter bracket, place The Shins, thanks to their recent “40 Mark Strasse“. Principal songwriter James Mercer narrates an invented tale of a child falling in love with (unbeknown to him) a prostitute; the story recalls the part of his childhood spent near the Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The titular street is a nom de plume, bestowed upon a stretch of highway frequented by GIs in search of vice. The song is melancholy and resigned, with the initial youthful optimism (“Too young to know just what it was / Something more than a friend”) quickly giving way to the ethereally-backed chorus, in which Mercer asks,
“My girl, you’re giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans / Put another dent in your life?”
The song shares a common strand of regret with Bowie—hinted at by the Germanic title—which finally plays out in the middle eight, with a gorgeous swell that looks back to the masterful outro of “Ashes To Ashes“. In the verses, eery sonar pings peek through a rich-timbred chord progression doubled up on acoustic guitar and prepared piano. As Mercer qua innocent child figures out the girl is beyond his grasp, he heaps the blame on her, telling her, “You’ll have to lose all them childish notions”. Is there a wider message to the song, to girls who have “the heart of a dove” but who can’t resist “play[ing] in the street at night”? The anguish in Mercer’s voice as he responds to his own exhortations suggests the dichotomy is not restricted to childhood infatuations with women of work.
Into this bracket we can also place Isaac Hayes’ interpretation of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix“, which provides ten minutes of backstory which contextualises what has become a succinct country standard. Hayes tells the story, in his sonorous voice-of-a-preacher, of a man who falls in love with a girl determined to take advantage of his naïveté and largesse. In his words,
“She said, ‘I got a fool and I know I got a fool, but I got a good thing’.”
She is ungrateful of his generosity—he takes no notice, knowing he is punching above his weight. Then, she cheats on him—and he finds out:
“But one day, one day, the old boy got sick and he had to come home.
I don’t have to tell you what he found.
Oh! Yeah, it hurt him so bad.
He said, ‘Baby…Mama, why?’ That’s all he could say.
That’s all he could say. He was hurt.”
The backing, a barely-there organ drone and a one-note bass line, underscores Hayes’ soliloquy with a universality: the same hurt is felt all the time; the philandering man is not the only challenge to the defining “power of love”. In the song itself, the lover-in-exile is brutal, standoffish—”Though time and time I try to tell her so / She just didn’t know I would really go”—but the introduction makes his crime of silence pale in comparison to her own, that of blatant deception.
When the main part of the song kicks in, a pair of forlorn trumpets peer through a winding clarinet part, while a lounge piano trickles in the occasional colour. The despair of the narrator is all too evident: he really doesn’t want to go, but he’s powerless to prevent the wandering ways of his girl. Even when the arrangement reaches its most triumphant moment, it’s only to bid farewell to her.
“I’m leaving my heart here / But I gotta go”
By taking the point of view of the spurned man, watching women who are tantalisingly close but whose commitment proves unattainable, Mercer and Hayes wrote songs that take a sophisticate’s eye to relationships. Some couples bicker and fight; other couples were never meant to be—in both these categories, it is possible to see men being the innocent victims of guilty women.