The Real Break-Up Is The Internal Crack-Up: On The Weakerthans’ "Left and Leaving"

Lyrics:

My city’s still breathing, but barely it’s true
Through buildings gone missing like teeth.
Sidewalks are watching me think about you,
Sparkled with broken glass.
I’m back with scars to show.
Back with the streets I know
will never take me anywhere but here.

Those stains in the carpet, this drink in my hand,
the strangers whose faces I know.
We meet here for our dress rehearsal to say
“I wanted it this way.”
Wait for the year to drown.
Spring forward, fall back down.
I’m trying not to wonder where you are.

All this time
Lingers, undefined.
Someone choose
Who’s left and who’s leaving.

Memory will rust and erode into lists
Of all that you gave me:
Blankets, some matches, this pain in my chest,
the best parts of Lonely.
Duct-tape and soldered wires,
new words for old desires,
and every birthday card I threw away.

I wait in 4/4 time.
Count yellow highway lines
that you’re relying on to lead you home.

Commentary:

I mostly listen to classical music. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a particular addiction, as are Chopin’s Noctures and choral music.

This song gets to me like few pieces of popular music do. These lyrics are very well-done. And the time it’s talking about reminds me of times in my life that I never want to relive.

Any interpretation of anything has to start with what we know. The second stanza and the line “I’m trying not to wonder where you are” seems to be the easiest to understand. We’re at the stage of a relationship which is broken or breaking apart. The stage where you’re with your drinking buddies to drink and justify everything you did in the relationship and how she’s being unreasonable. The people you meet might as well be stains on the carpet, they’re just accidents; the essence of the activity is blowing one’s brains out with alcohol.

Moving ahead, we encounter exactly what’s going on:

All this time
Lingers, undefined.
Someone choose
Who’s left and who’s leaving.

We’re at the breaking stage, it seems. What does it mean, though, for one to be left, another to be leaving? Don’t people move apart simultaneously? Is our narrator biased, thinking that someone (almost assuredly him) will get hurt worse than another?

The first and next-to-last stanzas shed light on this while making the story even more complicated. Aging and suicide seem to be tied in that first stanza. Places rot. People cut themselves, both out of sacrifice (no relationship is easy) and out of despair (no one wants to be back where they started in this way). The next to last stanza picks up on this: what erodes memory is the lack of presence. Blankets and matches used to be exciting, used to be part of a desire that was living. Now they’re just items. Even the pain of desire itself has just become a pain in the chest. It is human presence that animates. Further, the “repairs” that one conducts after a broken relationship are just that – repairs, not healing. In a sense, all you’re doing is covering the absence, and one wonders if that covering is just as destructive as it is necessary – to throw away birthday cards is to forget about oneself, even as one ages.

The aging/suicide themes of the first stanza can be said to define the second stanza (suicide – drinking a ton, “stains in the carpet”) and the next to last (aging – losing memory, needing repairs). But that’s not quite right: our narrator throws birthday cards away. The implication is that aging and suicide are the same thing, that they’re the products of effort that’s exhausted itself because of lack of an object to love. An object worthy of love is life: it animates the mind, uniting the elements that create memories. And it destroys the cycle that are loveless years: “spring forward, fall back down.”

I guess, having considered all this, that to debate our narrator about being biased is petty. The pain from a breakup really might affect one worse than another. Let’s just take him at his word, that someone’s gotta be left, another has to leave. How does that work?

The cryptic ending gives us a clue:

I wait in 4/4 time.
Count yellow highway lines
that you’re relying on to lead you home.

This whole song is the mark of someone “left.” To be bound up in the lines that create measures on a sheet of music is the same as to be bound up in the streets of a city begging to be desolate and to also see your love fly away, using the same reasons you use to mourn as reasons to not be with you, perhaps.

The other thing about these last few words is even darker than that: In a sense, every breakup is mutual, because we believe for the sake of the relationship – it may not be true – that loving is a matter of choice. This song, then, is the “I’m killing my feelings for you” statement, maybe even more than a statement. It’s “I’m left, and you’re leaving, and that’s what it has to be.” The song itself is the impetus to kill the feelings one has for another, to pretend like a part of your life never happened and was utterly meaningless.

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