Originally released on: Narrow Stairs (May 13, 2008)
Samples: Radiohead – “Exit Music (For a Film),” Cartoon bell sample
But once it starts it’s harder to tell them apart…
The first rule of songwriting is simple: write what you know. And when most of us start putting pen to paper, the thing we know the most about is ourselves.
There are countless songwriters who have made entire careers writing about themselves. Mostly, these people live interesting lives. For those of us a little more mundane and boring, we have two choices to avoid succumbing to woeful self-indulgence: find a way to make the ordinary extraordinary – a challenging task at the best of times – or learn to write stories about other people.
At first, I was terrible at this. The whole reason why I started writing instead of stories when I was a teenager is that I don’t get “characters.” I can’t imagine where they start, where the end and the space in between. I can never picture the changes they go through over the course of the story I’m trying to tell. I don’t see epiphanies, or realizations, or reunions. I see static.
I blamed all this on my hatred of “characters,” but my ire was misplaced. What I really couldn’t work with was plot.
I found this out when, in the course of one night, I penned a song/poem entitled “New Fictions.” It was about two pickpockets in New York City who donate their spoils to a downtown church where they live in the balcony, obsessing over Old West mythology (it made a lot more sense when you read it, really). It was a breakthrough for me because I realized that I didn’t need to solve these characters’ problems in four and a half minutes. I could introduce their problem – in this case, existential dread – and explore it without resolution. In a song, it’s the sketch that matters.
Aside from the fact that it’s an unbelievably catchy pop song, I think this is one of the reasons why I’m so fond of “Long Division” in particular, and much of Narrow Stairs in general. It feels like the record where Ben Gibbard breaks himself of the shackles of “I” and “we” and really explores his stories from a different perspective. Tracks like “Cath…” and “Grapevine Fires” keep distance from their characters, but they’re no less riveting; if anything, they gain something from their narrator’s arm’s-length observations.
In “Long Division,” Gibbard gives us only the slightest glimpse into his protagonist and his relationship, but says a world with them. From the division metaphor at the song’s core, to the description of memories as paper, there’s a pathetic quality to the experience, one without a single scent of resolution. The song seems to end mid-fight, mid-issue. Some may find the lack of conclusion frustrating, but I find it liberating. The whole reason I hate dealing with plot in the first place is that life rarely works out in narrative form. Sometimes, the end just isn’t worth telling or knowing. Sometimes, it just doesn’t factor out.