Anatomy of a Great Song III
“Para” by Calexico
Fair warning: this is a dark song, and by extension, a dark post.
I remember the exact moment this song got through to me, not just because it happened last week, but also because it was a moment that knocked me out. It’s a song that has slipped by me many times, and I had even read an interview about it and listened to several versions over many months before this particular day.
Then, I’m on the bus, stopping on the way home to get grapes from the store, and it hits me. I think the problem was that I never listened to the first lines before, but that day, for some reason, I noticed them:
I hold your wrist
You bite your lip
The push becomes an embrace
I touch your face
You close your eyes
The embrace becomes a shove
I’ve said before that Joey Burns has one of the best voices in contemporary music. “Para” demonstrates why this is the case: through these first lines, the fragility of his voice reveals that confusing, complex ground between two people caught up in the violence and passion of an abusive relationship. One small move on the part of the abused to change from vulnerable to defiant, and things are unhinged; “the embrace becomes a shove”.
It goes on:
I walk away
You follow too close
The shove takes hold
And there’s nowhere to go
I am a big Joey Burns fan, for reasons that are obvious (musical genius, good-looking, great voice) and not so obvious. He’s a good combination of friendly and intense. As you get older, friendly matters, right? I get tired of singers who are self-absorbed jerks, and unless he’s hiding it well, Burns seems quite the opposite. In this song, though, he wipes out the friendly and goes with intense. The ambiguity here is necessary (who is following too close and who is walking away?) and frightening. Burns’s voice becomes more urgent in this section, and the final two lines describe that trapped feeling of someone who, literally or figuratively, has nowhere to go.
Through all of this verse, the accompaniment is pretty sparse, only drums, bass, and a persistent answer on the guitar to the lyrics. In the chorus, that accompaniment changes drastically. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
In the second verse, we meet the couple again, presumably post-separation:
I see you now
Through a glass wall
All that is you stays with you
And all that is me stays with me
But we see it all
And we feel it all
And there’s no place
We can’t go
The separation reveals the estranged, obsessed abuser’s desperation; he’s someone who can’t accept this outcome and turns the hopelessness of “there’s nowhere to go” into “there’s no place we can’t go”. This kind of lyrical unity is difficult to achieve, especially when that unity is describing something that will never be resolved. And of course, Burns is increasing the strain in his voice, to the point that the insanity of the character is obvious by the end of the verse: he’s controlled, but completely out of control.
On to the chorus. Each time it happens, the accompaniment swells underneath Burns’s voice. His lines are basic: “Take it down/take it all away…”etc, but while he’s singing about taking it down, the accompaniment is rising up the scale – the bass does it for awhile before it slips back down, but the strings keep going through the whole chorus. The way the strings are used here furthers the sense of terror, kind of the way they might in a horror movie.
Tension is created in the accompaniment that rises up and the lyrics that reference going down; something that makes the song more effective even if that happens unconsciously. And even though the ultimate goal is to make the listener uncomfortable, there’s something pleasing about that kind of pull. I’m thinking of the way you are told to “pull up, pull up, pull up!” while you plié in ballet class, or “push through the floor!” when you rise on your toes – it makes no sense, but is satisfying when you achieve it.
In the end, the build of the strings crashes into a denouement marked by the strings dissonantly falling away…nothing got solved in this song. The ambiguity with which it started is still there, and maybe now worse. And isn’t that the case in the reality of abuse? Even if the abused walks away, it never really disappears; it is now part of the fabric of those two people.
I’d like to think that this is the kind of song that could change someone’s life. It could.