“You know, it’s quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don’t do it.” – Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938)
To manipulate a phrase from another consequential thinker: philosophers have hitherto interpreted love; it is up to the songwriting to communicate it. There is obviously much more involved than energy, generosity, and blindness. It is a human instinct, whether love is selfish or selfless. It is a subject that a songwriter can rarely resist.
Love is a noun. Love is a verb. It is devotion and detachment. It fills your soul as easy as it tears it apart. It is absurd, yet there is nothing more natural. Love is a contradiction. It is security and uncertainty. It is the worst and the best of human experience. The highest highs and the lowest lows; being in love is being truly alive, for better or worse. No emotion elevates the mind and heart as much as love, or lets it reach the depths of what it is to be. One loves because one exists in the world.
Like the world, love at once seems a duality. It is the black and white of right and wrong, good and bad, positive and negative. But dualities are simple. Love, being fundamental to life, is complex. This is why it is intense. This is why poets, artists, and novelists write endlessly on the subject, from the most intricate pieces of creation to the more benign. If it were simple, there would be no need for the constant revisiting of this common sentiment. Indeed, the complexity can lead to shame in society; something which Bob Dylan acknowledges in ‘Simple Twist of Fate’: People tell me it’s a sin/To know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin/But I lost the ring/She was born in the spring/But I was born too late/Blame it on a simple twist of fate. It is the shades of grey in love that give it an infinitely fascinating creative purview. Every love is different, yet there is a little bit of anyone who has loved in every expression of love.
Leonard Cohen is the master of the grey areas of love. There is, of course, ‘Hallelujah’, but listen to the end of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – I don’t mean to suggest/That I loved you the best/I can’t keep track of each fallen robin/I remember you well/In the Chelsea Hotel/That’s all, I don’t even think/Of you that often. Then there’s ‘Suzanne’, which gives a provoking take on the romantic versus the platonic nature of love: And you want to travel with her/And you want to travel blind/And you know that she will trust you/For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind. Song-writing is not something that is easily judged objectively, if that is really possible at all. Yet there is something in the grey areas of life and of love that make it worth the candle, and that make the words speak to you authentically, acknowledging the lack of black and white certainty.
The late singer and poet from Montreal influenced a current singer and poet from Gibraltar, living in London. Gabriel Moreno is working on a new album after his Farewell Belief record. But it is the preceding album, Love and Decadence, which hits home those grey areas throughout like a hammer to the heart. Before spending time in America, I saw Gabriel play in a bar in Farringdon Road. I hadn’t seen him perform in London until then. Being a new father, he is going through a different love in bringing up his child, with all the challenges and fears it brings. I was thinking about that night I stopped over to watch him sing. I was in London briefly, on my way to America for a few months. I remembered listening to his songs and how I thought in some ways he spoke to my love experience.
Returning from America, I wrote him this poem in the style of, and in reference to, some of his songs about love:
Gabriel Brown/Your Hispanic hat that is shielding your crown/Can you lend it to me?/I need your powers of prose
It’s been on my mind/What came of the Russian girl you hoped to find?/I thought I saw her last night/In Apollo’s arms
His lute kissed the ground/It was just as poetic as Rimbaud and Pound/Don’t surrender your voice/Your Espinel guitar
Like Joselin/I sincerely hope that you conquer your dreams/But do share your boots/And working class pride
Gabriel Brown/It’s the end of December and I’m back in the town/This old fortress rock/Couldn’t keep you at bay
Unlike PM May/I hope you’re never in a place you ought not to stay/Just keep moving on/You’ll get there in time
Joking aside/Your essay on Angelo watered my eyes/I hope you are well/Have a happy new year
Love and Decadence begins with ‘No One Can Reach Us Here’, and again it is the verse before the final chorus that packs that emotional gut-punch which speaks for itself: And now we’ve reached the threshold/Of love or mere submission/I wanted to adore you/Without losing touch/Only your hands could/Make me real. Love and submission – are the two options very different after all?
There’s submission on track one, but we’re swiftly taken to delusion with ‘Beautiful Lies’: I am drowning my eyes/In your beautiful lies. Delusion and manipulation are not surprising aspects of love, although they are sobering. We are humans with egos, insecurities, and, again, complexities. In this track, the voice is willingly surrendering under the spell of manipulation and delusion, because the lies are too beautiful to resist, despite the cost.
Look to my eyes/They’re like animals in hiding/They are lonesome and wild/Like the feelings that I’m fighting. ‘Love or Fire’, track three, builds on the imperfection of love. It is insecure and often carnal or instinctive, not always relaxed and rational. It is very human in its sensitivity but very animalistic in its drive for desire. Imperfection is reiterated a couple of verses later when we move from the insecurity of the eyes to the desolate cavern of the mind: Look to my mind/It is darker than a forest/And in theoretical terms/You are the lantern/And the solace. ‘Love or Fire’ is the story of risk, trusting something or someone that could blow everything up in your face, or provide a lasting flame.
‘Losing Game’ sharply questions love, almost to the degree of apathy: You said it’s a trial from the start/You said we were meant to be stars/But whose war are we fighting?/Are we fighting back? But the next track is more accepting. ‘We Are What We Are’ is a conversation to a lover about being a singer of love songs, in his words, singing for someone to love. It sounds a bit like meta-commentary: Metric rhymes and vaccines/Well I still have your eyelids/I even pawned my language/To stay inside the Sanskrit of love.
It is ‘Saturday Night’ for track number six and the focus is on London nightlife, drowning sorrows in alcohol, and ‘melting the clocks for you’. It is disillusioned and disheartened; a cry to get out of the inauthenticity and superficiality of the dating scene. From here onto the next track, we get a taste of the existential and religious, where the love of God feels unrequited: Oh Lord what have you done/You turned a thought into a man/And all the fun we could have had/Turned into scorn and into mud.
‘Fuentes’ brings us back to a similar theme of commentary as in ‘We Are What We Are’: I was wise to write what I knew dear/Sometimes lines make it all clear/There were times I was one with your dreams. Sometimes lines make it all clear. But sometimes they don’t; they reflect the lack of clarity, like in ‘Dance in the Night for Us’: Father, I am counting my marbles/I hope you can see me/Here in your blood/Bodies are fragile like China/But bonds are like castles/Reigning our minds.
The tail-end of the album begins with ‘The Waiting Song’. There is a realisation that now that there are no answers in the grey areas of love, no matter how long you wait: I was waiting for the dancers/To release the waltz of answers/I was waiting for the wonder/In the inner life of numbers/I was waiting for a ride/Into your mind. But in ‘Piensa En Mi’, there’s an offer despite the uncertainty: Si tienes ganas de llorar/Piensa en mi (If you have the urge to cry/Think of me). We come full-circle with the final track, ‘Mother of Song’, as there is certainty of the uncertainty: I used to be blind but I am l blind no more/My eyes were like marble-made stones/If you flee from your mind/We can hide from the light.
The journey of love is now complete; through passion and doubt, reflection and acceptance. We read our own stories into song. Communication is only so good in so far as it is received, but that’s all that matters. It is not the accuracy to the song-writer’s image that counts. It is not some sort of quest for objective meaning. Love grows in us, from those awkward teenage dates to your first love, from the heartbreaks to the soulmates. Writing about love truly does not just embrace the extreme black and whites, but rather the innumerable shades of grey that occupy the experience of human existence.