Love and Truth in a Material World: The Weakerthans, “None of the Above”

None of the Above (lyrics from theweakerthans.org / song available here)
The Weakerthans

All night restaurant, North Kildonan.
Luke warm coffee tastes like soap.
I trace your outline in spilled sugar,
killing time and killing hope.
This brand new strip mall chews on farmland
as we fish for someone to blame.
But we communicate in questions,
and all our answers sound the same.

Under sputtering flourescents,
after re-fills are re-filled.
Negotiations at a stand-still,
spoon and rolling saucer stilled.
If you ask how I got so bitter,
I’ll ask how you got so vain.
And all our questions blur together.
The answers always sound the same.

We can’t look at one another.
I’ll say something thoughtful soon,
but I can’t listen to the quiet
so I hum this mindless tune
I stole from some dumb country-rock star.
I don’t even know his name.
It’s like my stupid little questions:
the answers always sound the same.

Tell me why I have to miss you so.
Tell me why we sound so lame.
Why we communicate in questions
and all our answers sound the same.

Comment:

“Tell me why I have to miss you so” is missing from the version of these lyrics on the website, and I suspect that was done on purpose. The entire song depends on that line – it is the only thing implying something better could be felt, perhaps even had. Without that sentence, this may only be a tune from a “dumb country rock-star” used to eliminate “quiet:” both missing someone and silence are negations that are not necessarily bad.

The song offers a third sort lacking affirmation: every stanza ends with “questions.” The first and last has our speaker and his audience “communicate” in them with “the answers sound[ing] the same,” implying we’ve come full circle at the end of the song (contrast with “Left and Leaving”). The second talks about their blurring, and the third mentions “stupid little questions:” the general seems to be composed of many small, almost insignificant particulars.

But the last stanza tells us the “stupid little questions” – why do we love? What makes us unique? Why do we ask questions, expecting better answers each time? These add up to form a whole: if you can get a grip on any of them, you can consider your life to be well-lived.

That’s what this song is about – in a multiple-choice world, where everything is a test, can we really fall in love? I like to say sometimes that thought is the ultimate form of love: if you really care about something, you think about it. The objection that there are people you love whom you don’t obsess over only demonstrates to me that thought has depth. Quality matters, not quantity.

The details within the lyrics imply another, buried world. “All night restaurant,” when considered with the paternal threat of washing one’s mouth out with soap, the farms and fisheries of a world where economics had its original meaning of “household management,” is most significant. This is a world of junk food in more than one way: the family is gone, mealtime is gone. There was demand for “spilled sugar” and now it is supplied readily.

The second stanza is almost abstract, except for “flourescents,” “spoon” and “rolling saucer.” The emphasis on “fill” and “still” makes one think of a glass, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see emptiness. I think that’s what’s happening with bitterness and vanity: we didn’t grow up properly nourished. Now we have nothing to offer each other except our own desires.

From articulate speech (“ask”) we move to sight (“we can’t look at one another”) and nameless tunes. This is the deepest problem with a world centered on materialism – we say we want stuff so that way everyone has a chance, a slightly easier life. That’s all well and good, except for one little problem: if that specific intent is lost for any reason, it is impossible to recover wisdom generally. After all, the only logic left is that of appropriation; we can’t look at each other because we want to look in ourselves; we want to spend more time regretting and dreaming of something better than actually dealing with another person. Nameless tunes strongly imply that learning is just taking: everything is worthless unless it comes in contact with us, and our ability to assess value is itself dubious.

That the last stanza is more specific – that the questions can be articulated, even in a cynical, inverted way – shows there’s hope. But getting to hope is going to involve a kind of courage few know. We’re going to have to stop lying to ourselves, and start answering our own most serious questions.

5 Comments

  1. I like the last few lines:
    “Tell me why we sound so lame.
    Why we communicate in questions
    and all our answers sound the same.”
    Ah, there’s always this desire for something more profound- in life, in relationships- that’s always left wanting…
    “we can’t look at each other because we want to look in ourselves; we want to spend more time regretting and dreaming of something better than actually dealing with another person” sums it up well.

  2. “I think that’s what’s happening with bitterness and vanity: we didn’t grow up properly nourished. Now we have nothing to offer each other except our own desires.”

    “…we can’t look at each other because we want to look in ourselves; we want to spend more time regretting and dreaming of something better than actually dealing with another person.”

    Well said! The older I get, the more I see this attitude in marriages and relationships in our society. More and more children aren’t getting “properly nourished” with each new generation.

  3. Your analysis for the lyrics kinda caught me by surprise, particularly in explaining the lines for “spilled sugar” and “rolling saucer” which I didn’t really know what it was about. And I’m glad that you pointed those out ’cause I’m starting to understand the lyrics a lot better. But the last stanza for me is just so remarkable ’cause it makes the song sound complete, well at least for me, kinda sums it up. I like what you said here the most: “everything is worthless unless it comes in contact with us, and our ability to assess value is itself dubious.”

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