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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

The Weakerthans, “Utilities”

Utilities (lyrics from songmeanings.net & theweakerthans.org, song (acoustic) available here)
The Weakerthans

Got this feeling
That today doesn’t like me
Or the air tastes like
Flowers and paint
There’s a sink full
Of bottles and cutlery
And the car
Has got a list of complaints

I just wish I
Were a toothbrush
Or a solder gun
Make me something
Somebody can use

We can wish on
The pop of a lightbulb
Or those photos
Lying yellow and curled
Loose in boxes
Near abandoned electronics
In the corners of the basements
Of the world

Guess our wishes
Don’t do dishes
Or brake repairs
Make them something
Somebody could use

Got a face full
Of ominous weather
Smirking smile
Of a high pressure ridge
Got more faults than
The state of California
And the heart is a badly built bridge

Seems the most I
Have to offer
Doesn’t offer much
Make it something
Somebody could use
Make this
Something somebody
Could use

Comment:

Two themes from this song:

  1. The feeling of many they have to be loved in order to be whole, in order to be fully useful (“Make this something somebody could use”)
  2. The fact our emphasis on independence exacerbates rather than mitigates this longing

The song has the feel of the blues and starts with the notion that this is just a mood the speaker is going through (“got a feeling that today doesn’t like me”). He seems to be outside; flowers and paint seem to be descriptive of homes neighbors maintain (the word “home” is never mentioned in this song). Flowers contrast with the bottles in the sink in that water allows the former to grow; alcohol doesn’t quite do the same thing for a person. Cutlery lying unwashed is a far cry from a now-blemishless home. What is “sunk” inside moves to the prospect of getting away, but motion is expensive and for the time being, broken (“car has a list of complaints”).

A “toothbrush” cleans; in ridding bad breath, it gives one the potential to be heard by an immediate audience. “Solder gun” is different from all the images before, echoed faintly in “flowers” and “cutlery” (dining together?): it unites. The speaker wants to be these two things – a toothbrush or a solder gun – for someone else. We might look at his humility as a cop-out; shouldn’t he take on the hard work of cleaning up and finding the right people himself?

Before we can indict him, though, he moves to “We.” “We” wish just as lightbulbs turn on with utmost ease. But break a lightbulb into its composite elements; its yellow light reminds one of faded photos that are themselves products of wishes. The technology of lightbulbs is everywhere, lying neglected in basements of places just like our speaker’s. He moves back to his situation, but this time with all of us joining him: “guess our wishes don’t do dishes or brake repairs.” The implicit counter to all of us who would accuse the speaker of letting his life fall apart is that it’s easy to tell others to make wishes (and make them yourself) when you feel useful. Feeling useful is just that, though – a feeling. All of us have faded photos lying around and electronics in disrepair; we don’t focus on them because we’re preoccupied with a sense of our own accomplishment, a feeling that usually depends on what others think.

The worst part is that our speaker knows things can get worse, are getting worse:

Got a face full
Of ominous weather
Smirking smile
Of a high pressure ridge
Got more faults than
The state of California
And the heart is a badly built bridge

He’s had to turn inside, he doesn’t have the luxury of going to others for justification that’s meaningful. Again, we can accuse him of self-fulfilling prophecy: to what degree is he describing traits – pessimism, cynicism, bad habits that cause quaking of one sort or another – that keep others away? To a degree, he’s accepted this aspect of the critique: “make it something somebody could use” changes to “make this something somebody could use,” with “this” emphatically referring to the speaker’s willingness to turn himself to an object. Bridge repairs can start from one side, sure.

The thing about love that our speaker has touched on, though, is that love has nothing to do with merit or being of use to someone. One is loved because of someone else’s perception of one’s own: they feel they possess you in some way. Being of use to someone else is a plea for love that may not necessarily work. Our emphasis on independence can never truly satisfy human longing because it fails to identify what human longing is. Divinity alone knows how all things work, and puts them to use.

1 Comment

  1. I think that it tells about any relationship. You need to be useful for others because you can’t live alone and you also need them. It is important to be kind in order to get only kindness from your surrounding.

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