Title: ‘Other Towns and Cities’
Where to find it: ‘My Maudlin Career’ (2009, 4AD)
Performed by: Camera Obscura
Words by: Traceyanne Campbell
Female singer/songwriters have quite a bit of a mountain to climb if they are to win me over. I give them all a listen and once-over for TGTF, but generally, my writers know if I don’t feel strongly one way or another for one of them, I’m likely to palm the release off to someone else. (I know, bad editor, bad editor!) It goes back to my training, if you can call it that, back in school choir, when for a time I was the de facto lead alto, at least for the purposes of practise ahead of performances. Our teacher with an unpronounceable, as well as easily misspelled Italian surname, known more easily to all of us as “The Scozz”, often called me down to the front of the class where I would have to demonstrate the proper way to sing whatever passage was being taught that class. At the time, at the tender age of 13, when I was much, much mousier than I am now, I was so embarrassed.
I might be a little taller now than I was then, but it’s pretty damn intimidating as a slight girl of 13 years to be stood in front of a group of 40 or so girls, many of whom who were ahead of my year (I was a freshman), singing lines from the ‘Lacrimosa’ of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ that meant nothing to me except how they sounded in song, and they sounded good. There is something very strange when you’re singing quite loudly in a large hall, the rest of the room entirely quiet, the echoes of your voice bouncing off the walls and back at you. Now I can look back at that time fondly; it’s this time of year that I remember singing lead on ‘O Holy Night’ when Christmastime came. I’m not a religious person at all, but when I was asked to sing that song, I could feel the power of that song in my voice and thought (and not in a cocky way at all because at age 13, is it even possible to be cocky?), hey, I’m pretty good at this.
It grates on my ears when I hear a female singer is making money for shrieking and shouting (yes, I’m looking at you, Florence Welch), because I hold them to a higher standard. Even though it was on an amateur scale, like all of them, I used to sing, and it was then when I learned there’s an art to singing, just like there is an art to songwriting. Traceyanne Campbell is one of the few female singer/songwriters who I think does both things very well. She’s an extremely thoughtful songwriter, and she’s fantastic as expressing pure emotion, even if her meanings are hidden behind a sunny pop melody for people too lazy to look at the words.
I bought my copy of ‘My Maudlin Career’ while in Boston on holiday. I’d escaped for a few days from the office and hopped on a plane to go see my friends Friendly Fires play a show sponsored by Nylon Magazine. I purchased the album at the famous Newbury Street location of Newbury Comics, where I also saw the xx do an in-store, well before they became massive in America. My hotel room at the quirky Charlesmark Hotel, smack dab in the middle of town, had an amazing sound system, so my first listen to the album from start to finish was done while I was stretched out lazily on the bed, basking in the warmth of being inside while the December winter wind howled outside. I have these great memories of my first trip to Boston, but I feel like some of the innocence of that first time has been lost: it shocked me to the core when the Boston Marathon bombing took place in April 2013, as the Charlesmark marks the finish line of the marathon on Boylston Street. Boston was never ‘my’ city in the sense that unlike some of my friends, I’ve never lived there or even went to university there, but it is tied up with my music writing memories and when that terrible day came, it felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
Some have pointed out that ‘Other Towns and Cities’ sticks out like a sore thumb, a far too sad addition to the album. But I think the placement of the song, right before bright, horn-filled album closer ‘Honey in the Sun’, was done on purpose to take some of the edge off. Because there is no other way to put this, ‘Other Towns and Cities’ is just sad. It feels like it’s been sung in a very stream of consciousness way, of a woman looking back on her many feelings for a man who meant so very much to her in an important time of her life, but she now has to come to grips that he is gone and things are no longer the same. What makes this song great is that even with the overwhelming sadness, in less than 4 minutes the song comes to what I feel is a hopeful conclusion. Some films can’t even get that together in over an hour.
First, the words:
Drinking whisky reminds me of you
You’re the first in ages to have gotten through
I know you mean well, I know that you do
But sooner or later you’re going to break me in two
Were my pupils dilated?
Could you tell that I liked you?
We were so unlikely
You flirt with an ex, put me to the test
Still I want to tell you that I love you the best
We turned the radiators on, and there was no way back
Did you know you had the Plough star trail on your back?
Your voice is quiet, but I need it loud
In the night you went up and the morning you went down
It’s like you to forbid me to say goodnight
I had your brown eyes and limbs on me through the night
These words are weak and to your dislike
You’ll never believe them so I guess it’s all right
Do you like the view I show you?
I say look at the light
Do you still miss the way that I hold you?
In other towns and cities
Who’s holding you tonight?
The dresses came out of the bag then the tears came
Drinking has never been the same again
I shared your trouble, I shared your weight
I lost it with you today
We don’t share a birthday, we do share a sign
And we shared something, or was it in my mind?
There was talk of love and how I need it back
I’d be better for you than that last love of mine
Do you like the view I show you?
I say look at the light
Do you still miss the way that I hold you?
In other towns and cities
Who’s holding you tonight?
You’re in another town or city
You mean nothing to me tonight.
Now, the analysis:
‘Other Towns and Cities’ itself is a pretty beguiling title, because it’s not obvious at all from just the name what the song is about. It becomes very clear, through a couple short listens, that she’s referring to a globetrotting former lover whose world travels takes him to so many different places. In the first half of the song, she’s wondering where he is, what he’s doing, and most importantly, who he’s with. That right there is and can be crippling stuff for someone very lonesome. But all is not lost, as she begins a change of heart at the conclusion of the song. If you have listened to ‘My Maudlin Career’, you will have noticed this is a major, major development after ‘You Told a Lie’, which tells of a liar who broke her heart and even though her mind knows better, she can’t help still be attracted to him, still wanting him. Frankly, I don’t know what’s worse.
For my personal ease, I rearranged the lyrics to fit the rhythm of the song and how Campbell sings it. In the first four lines of verse 1, she says how drinking reminds me of this man. He must have been very special, for “You’re the first in ages to have gotten through”, which I read two different ways: either he was the first man to really ring her bell and “got through” to her, and/or there was some reason she couldn’t be in a relationship because she was emotionally unavailable to be in one, and he was able to barrel through those walls she had up. In “I know you mean well, I know that you do,” she seems to be giving him an out, saying whatever happened to cause them not to be together anymore wasn’t his fault, the often typical thinking of people who have been dumped. But then she sings, “But sooner or later you’re going to break me in two”. I like the way this was written, because it’s not clear at this point in the song where he is or what has happened, but she makes it so that you know he’s been doing something that will rip her apart. Clear pain.
In the next three lines, she sounds like she’s having this flirty imaginary conversation with him. “Were my pupils dilated? / Could you tell that I liked you?” She was smitten from the start. She’s trying to be adorable, and it comes across as adorable. “We were so unlikely”: she admits that on paper, they didn’t seem to be a good match, but what is not said and does not need to be said is that for the time they were together, they were very good together. Then she comes back for a jabbing moment of pain again: “You flirt with an ex, put me to the test.” It’s not obvious if his flirting happened when they were together, or she’s witnessing it now after their relationship is over, but in case you haven’t experienced someone you love flirting with someone else (even though I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t), it hurts like hell. Still, though, she wants him to know she’s trying to be okay with it: “Still I want to tell you that I love you the best.” Even when she sees this flirting unfolding in front of her, because she’s still in love with him, she’s trying to smooth things over, saying it’s fine and it’s okay, because in her mind, blinded by love, it doesn’t matter who he’s flirting with: her feelings for him transcends all.
The lines of verse 2 introduce us to how they became intimate. The heat built, and they couldn’t ignore it any longer: “We turned the radiators on, and there was no way back”. Campbell then does something unusual in saying, “Did you know you had the Plough star trail on your back?” The Plough star trail is a reference to the Irish’s term “the Starry Plough” for what us Americans call the Big Dipper constellation, a collection of stars used for thousands of years by navigators as the guide. In essence, what she’s saying is he may not have been aware of it, but to her, he was her guiding star, someone very important to her life. The next two lines are less obvious. First is “Your voice is quiet, but I need it loud”: I wondered if this meant that they were engaged in a clandestine relationship and his voice was quiet because he didn’t want anyone to know about, such as the one in Til Tuesday’s ‘Voices Carry’, when what she really needed was for him to be public about their love and not be ashamed of it.
Then comes “In the night you went up and the morning you went down”, which some fans are saying indicates her lover was either on drugs and/or had depression, which led him to be “up”, happy, and high with her at night, but yet in the morning when he woke up, he was back down from the high and felt depressed again. These theories make sense, because in the next line, “It’s like you to forbid me to say goodnight”, he was high and was feeling so good being around her, he didn’t want her to leave, or maybe even he didn’t want her to go to sleep because he wanted to have sex. The latter of this feeds into “I had your brown eyes and limbs on me through the night”, though the way this is sung, it does not sound like she put up a fight and wanted to be there. “These words are weak and to your dislike” seem to say she was talking to him, possibly about his depression, and but he refused to listen to her wisdom, and the next line, “You’ll never believe them so I guess it’s all right”. Her tone here has shifted. She has resigned herself to the fact that he wasn’t listening to what she had to say, how she was trying to help. She’s trying, as hard as it might be, to disengage.
And now we are at the first chorus, which is loaded with meaning. “Do you like the view I show you?”: the view could be taken two ways, either literally her own beauty as a woman, or “the view” she offered him, trying to help him out of his depression, imploring “I say look at the light”, instead of the darkness. “Do you still miss the way that I hold you?”: this tells us she held him not just because they were lovers, but because they shared emotions. She understood him and wanted to be there for him. But he’s gone now and she’s wondering aloud, “In other towns and cities / Who’s holding you tonight?” Who has replaced her in his life? I think when someone important has left you, you try and be strong and not think about this person, but in reality, when you are lonely and sad, who is the first person to come into your mind? The person/people you loved who you can no longer have.
But she appears to have got on with her life, as this is her wedding day at the start of verse 3: “The dresses came out of the bag then the tears came”. She can’t drink without thinking about him (“Drinking has never been the same again”) and what personal things they shared (“I shared your trouble, I shared your weight”), but “I lost it with you today”, this is a turning point. I like astrology, so I thought the start of the next four lines, “We don’t share a birthday, we do share a sign”, was a nice nod; though it rhymes nicely with the next and important line, word-wise it’s awkward.
She is trying to rationalise what happened, “And we shared something, or was it in my mind?”, wondering if she had misunderstood what they meant to each other. Crippling. She’s having this internal battle in her head, asking herself how it all went wrong. Could she have misunderstood the signs? Maybe he was never really in love with her? “There was talk of love and how I need it back”: there came a point where she realised the love she needed from him wasn’t there, and she “needed” her love back so she could go on and live her own life. However, the next line is so confusing: “I’d be better for you than that last love of mine.” She’s no longer with her last love (who wasn’t him), but she’s saying she’s learned from her past relationships and is adamant she would be better for him than the her last love, who I presume she learnt from and so is now miles away a better significant other. It’s sung in this grand drawl but because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here, it’s kind of a throwaway line to me.
The second chorus is the same as the first, except for the addition of two very important lines: “You’re in another town or city / You mean nothing to me tonight.” That’s the great take-home message of this song: even if it’s just a small bit, we all harbor memories of those we loved in our hearts. They never truly leave us. And that’s okay, because even if we’re not sure when it will happen, the wounds of that relationship from the memory of a man who once meant so much to her will heal, and she can live again.
This is just her first step in accepting that in this point in time, he has no significance in her life. Whether or not she actually believes it in her heart, he is now far away and should not mean anything to her anymore. A painful lesson, but something we all must learn in life. I’m trying to learn this myself, but it’s so hard for me: it’s entirely against my nature not to care for someone who means so much to me, even if the other person doesn’t care for me the same way. I can’t turn off my love, even though everyone who wants the best for me in my life says I need to. I guess there is always a kernel of hope in me that the other person will come around and I will one day get that love back in kind.
So that is my new year’s wish for you all: go into 2014 by closing the book on the people who have hurt you. So you don’t let them hurt you anymore.
Lastly, the song, live for a Pitchfork TV spot, starring Traceyanne Campbell’s fragile vocals, backed simply by Kenny McKeeve on guitar.