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Title: ‘November Song’
Where to find it: ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ (2013, 4AD)
Performed by: Stornoway
Words by: Brian Briggs

Brian Briggs is a very interesting singer/songwriter. Like yours truly, he trained as a biologist – his specialty was birds – so he has a different take on songwriting because his life experience is so unique. His band Stornoway released their second album this year, and rather interestingly, both albums – 2010’s ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’ and this year’s ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ – end with a tear-jerky love song. ‘Long Distance Lullaby’ was the drunken wailings of a man who has lost his soulmate and is trying to move on, because she already has with someone else. But is ‘November Song’ a love song at all? On the surface it is, but listen more closely to the words and there’s definitely more there.

First, the words:

Verse 1
As I was following the road back to our house
Deeper than blue was the dusk through the trees
With the last of the leaves clinging on like my mother’s hand
Cold as the sandpaper wind on my cheeks

Over the river and under the railway
Moonlight in silver the ribbon of blue
And the phone lines were whistling like my mother’s breathing
And my eyes were streaming

Chorus
There’s a clock on my wall
Sometimes I hear it in my dreams
But I won’t be afraid of the changes a comin’
While I know a love that is sure as the morning

Verse 2
There’s a light in the clock house
A light in the chapel
A light in the hallway left on by an angel
And I creep up the stairs and I pause on the threshold
To take off my boots and my clothes in the dark

With my nose like a fox and my skin like a chicken
I steal into my bed where it’s warm as an oven
And you feel like the bread made in my mother’s kitchen
And we’re peaceful as a candle

Chorus and outro
And the clock on my wall
Sometimes I hear it in my dreams
But I won’t be afraid of the changes a comin’
While I know a love that won’t break with the dawn
No, I won’t be afraid of the darkness a comin’

No, I won’t be afraid of the darkness a comin’
While I know a love that’s sure as the morning

Now, the analysis:

It’s clear to me this song isn’t purely about love between a man and a woman, even though the subtext is there. No, it’s not that simple. The basic storyline is the protagonist’s circuitous way home to the woman he loves, travelling in the middle of the night alone and therefore he’s able to collect his thoughts. But there are three mentions of his mother throughout this song, and their mentions have major significance.

His mother’s resilience is compared to leaves hanging on a tree bough but not falling: “With the last of the leaves clinging on like my mother’s hand”. Who is she clinging on to? At first I thought maybe this meant she was desperately trying to keep a hold on her son, as mothers do: many mothers feel the women that enter their sons’ lives are not good enough for their children. However, the second mention “And the phone lines were whistling like my mother’s breathing / And my eyes were streaming” indicates he’s been crying. Was he there when his mother died, her clutching to his hand, grasping on her last feeling of life? Or maybe she is in hospital and is poorly and her breathing is laboured, indicating the end is near. I tend to favour the latter explanation, as in the chorus, Brian Briggs sings, “But I won’t be afraid of the changes a comin’” – a major life event is about to occur – “While I know a love that is sure as the morning” – he’s going to be okay because he is with the woman he loves and he knows when the new day dawns, she will be there for him: “While I know a love that won’t break with the dawn”.

When he finally gets to the house, he comments that there’s a light on “left by an angel” (his love) and he wants to be quiet when he gets into bed, so not to wake her. Yet what is he thinking when he gets into bed? “I steal into my bed where it’s warm as an oven / And you feel like the bread made in my mother’s kitchen”: he has a wonderful remembrance of his childhood, of his mother baking bread in their kitchen. It may seem like a strange thought, like slightly Oedipal, but in this context, I don’t see anything salacious in this.

It’s funny, when I first heard this song, before “the darkness a comin'” really made an impression on me, I thought “the changes a comin'” indicated his love was pregnant and they were expecting a child. There was just something about the song, the way it was constructed, that made me think the event being anticipated was a joyous one. And I suppose it still is: even if he is losing (or has lost) his mother and that represents a great darkness that will come, he can hold his love in his arms and won’t be alone because she is his “light” even if the road up ahead is dark. And he will be able to look back at his childhood and recall his mother with great fondness.

He was alone in the dark and chilled to the bone until he came back home and into the light – provided by his great love. He even describes their love “as peaceful as a candle”: hot with passion, yet their passion is settled enough to burn in one continuous flame, peaceful. It’s an example of deft songwriting at its finest.

Lastly, the song, live at the Mercury Lounge in New York City in 2010.

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