Song Analysis #22: The Crookes – Maybe in the Dark

Title: ‘Maybe in the Dark’
Where to find it: ‘Hold Fast’ (2012, Fierce Panda [UK]; 2013, Modern Outsider [US])
Performed by: The Crookes
Words by: Daniel Hopewell

It’s my birthday, so I’ve decided I’m going to revisit a song by the Crookes that means a lot to me. I did a reasonably good job analysing Daniel Hopewell’s lyrics to ‘Maybe in the Dark’ on TGTF last year. But like a lot of other songs that have ‘grown’ with me over the years, this one is aging beautifully like a fine wine and revealing more of itself to me as time passes. At the time of this writing, the lads are in the studio finishing up what will be album #3, and us Bright Young Things are pretty much chomping at the bit for new material.

Last week, I analysed ‘First Day of My Life’ by Conor Oberst. It was quite interesting to me learning through my research that Bright Eyes released two albums in 2005, and the albums are supposed to be companions to one another. Or at least that’s what the fans seem to think. (Again, I’m not a Oberst aficionado, so…) ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’, the companion song to ‘First Day of My Life’ on the ‘Digital Ash in a Digital Urn’ album, and what I gleaned from it made me want to go back to the drawing board and rethink the meaning of ‘Maybe in the Dark’, the second single from the Crookes’ second album ‘Hold Fast’, released last year.

I seem to remember facing some resistance from our head editor at TGTF when I wanted to write about the Crookes back in 2009. All of us music writers have come across a band we just got this wonderful gut feeling about the first time we ever heard them. Hearing ‘Backstreet Lovers’ on Steve Lamacq’s show was one of those moments for me. I remember thinking the delightfully named “Library Tour” in autumn 2010 was very unique. Wait one cotton pickin’ minute. A rock band full of literary geek intellectuals? That sound like the Beatles? How can this be? Being American, I also figured never see them live. But I got my wish on 12 May 2012, when thanks to the Orchard, they were a last minute addition to my first Great Escape, and their appearance at the Hope truly made my weekend.

What sounded like a great idea on email in the days before – putting in a request to interview them in Brighton – became a terrifying, nail-biting, nerve-riddled, staring at myself in the mirror-kind of Saturday morning. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so freaked out to meet some of my musical heroes in person. That was before I actually met them. They turned out to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, period. We’ve been friends ever since. I’ve been very lucky to have seen them 8 times as of September 2013, matching the number of times I’ve seen Morrissey. Having signed to American label Modern Outsider this very summer, I expect them to be spreading the New Pop gospel across our land and much further beyond in 2014.

First, the words, helpfully provided last summer by Hopewell himself and left in the style he prefers:

Verse 1
Maybe it’s just cheap easy lust with chemicals. We’re dirt forever.
Maybe we’re blessed. I’ll rip your dress, you pull my hair and we’ll leave together.
Maybe you’re young. I’ll bite your tongue, your lip will bleed. We’re trash forever.
Maybe you’re right, just for tonight. But your clumsy kiss won’t taste so clever.

And all I need is a substitute, maybe in the dark she’ll look enough like you….

I’ll take the shame, lust to blame. What if we ever meet again?
I’ll know your face, not your name. But we’ll know

Verse 2 (shortened)
Maybe I’ll find pleasure tonight? With chemicals I’ll hardly miss her.
Maybe you wear clothes like she wears. Same coloured hair. I’m sick forever.

And all I need is a substitute, maybe in the dark she’ll look enough like you….

Chorus (second and third version; third version appears after bridge)
I’ll take the shame, lust to blame. What if we ever meet again?
I’ll know your face, not your name. But we’ll know
Our eyes were bright, out of sight. Two strangers caught behind the night.
You’re the perfect second best.

Every time I see your ghost…(you’re the perfect second best)

Now, the analysis:

I’ve been told by friends and even people I don’t even know that my style of interviewing is very special, because I manage to get out specific and sometimes personal details about people that they wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else. A couple years ago at a festival, one of my interview subjects told me that talking to me was about as comfortable as talking to a therapist. That surprised me, and I consider that a great compliment, to have that empathy within me and for others to be able to feel that empathy. I think it has to do with me being able to feel the emotions in other people as strongly as if they were my own. Often, this comes in handy for song analysis. But maybe ‘handy’ is the wrong word for some songs. Sometimes I will hear a song and it’s like BAM! The next thing I know, I’m on the floor, seeing stars through the tears in my eyes, and why? Because I feel its message so strongly. ‘Maybe in the Dark’ did exactly that to me.

I spent far too many evenings in the weeks after ‘Hold Fast’ came out, lying in bed in the middle of a hot DC summer, unable to sleep, haunted by the memories I had of a man I’d cared for and loved deeply but who didn’t feel the same way about me. I felt about as attractive and pathetic as an old sock without its partner. The tears streamed down my cheeks as this single and ‘Stars’, the song directly follows it on the LP, played on the little yellow CD player I keep on my dresser. Back then, what impressed on me most about the way Daniel Hopewell wrote this song was the imagery of “every time I see your ghost”: it’s describing someone you once held so beloved but is now gone from your life, yet that person never fully leaves your consciousness.

You think you see that person *everywhere*. I know certainly did. Every time I was out and about in town, I was sure I’d seen this guy and his lanky frame when it clearly impossible for the two of us to be in the same place. The words “You’re the perfect second best” were particularly cutting, because it held two meanings for me. On one hand, it hurt me that he was with another woman and that I’d suddenly become his second best. But on the flipside, maybe he was settling for her and she was the perfect second best to me? Doesn’t matter now: this past spring on a trip to Liverpool I learned he wasn’t worthy of my feelings, so I was able to close that chapter of my life and put it behind me.

Months prior to my last holiday to Britain, I set myself the task to learn the bass line to this song. I really enjoy playing bass, and one big reason is that in addition to its reputation as being a very sensual instrument (which I can definitely tell you that hell yeah, it is!), the bass guitar can also be played as a deeply emotional one. There’s probably nothing better for me to get out my aggressions, upset, and sadness than throwing myself into playing my bass, Blake. Believe it or not, this song has four bass notes. FOUR. All played on one string. Seriously. Yet George Waite does an excellent job with it, as the bass line utilising the four notes, in various patterns, leads the song – shocker! – with the lead guitar melody following after the vocals begin. It’s the bass that makes the song funky and actually, it turns the song pop and pretty much does everything to detract from what I think is the actual meaning of the song.

Most everyone I’ve seen at a Crookes show is either tapping their toes or dancing like a crazy person when the guys are playing it, and with good reason: it’s funky as hell thanks to the bass line, you are compelled to sing and clap along, and you can’t help but get swept up into it because of the way it makes you feel, because it is that good. And it is. I cannot stress enough how impressed I am by this song that doesn’t even last 2 and a half minutes. Each of the three times the chorus appears, the notes are different, and I could probably do a whole post on how I think the emotions differ from one chorus to the next(!) But to make this short, notice how the second and third choruses differ: the third one has Waite singing ascending notes for the line “but we’ll know”, and when this part of the song comes on my car’s CD player, I’m aware people are looking at me funny because it looks like I’m conducting with my hands.

But the wonderfully unique thing about ‘Maybe in the Dark’ is beneath it all, it’s got very heavy subject matter for a song that sounds happy and has a bright, poppy exterior.

Maybe it’s just cheap easy lust with chemicals. We’re dirt forever. (1)
Maybe we’re blessed. I’ll rip your dress, you pull my hair and we’ll leave together. (2)
Maybe you’re young. I’ll bite your tongue, your lip will bleed. We’re trash forever. (3)
Maybe you’re right, just for tonight. But your clumsy kiss won’t taste so clever. (4)

All four lines of the first verse have a similar arrangement. In lines 1 and 3, the voice of the song is first giving a reason for what is about to happen, only to disparage the act after. Getting drunk and being young are two all too easy – as well as all too familiar – reasons why strangers end up in bed together. But our protagonist isn’t entirely happy about what’s about to happen: “We’re dirt forever” and “We’re trash forever”. This isn’t some grand passion with someone you love that will cause you to wake up tomorrow with a smile on your face. It’s going to happen, but underlying it all is the acceptance that on some level, it’s wrong. In lines 2 and 4, Hopewell gives us the words “Maybe we’re blessed” and “Maybe you’re right”; again, these words are given as a basis for the action, though in contrast to lines 1 and 3, there’s a positive spin put on them.

Oddly though, directly after this positivity in line 2 (and also in line 3), we witness violence in the form of him ripping the woman’s dress and him biting her tongue (and lip?) so hard during a French kiss, he draws blood. He’s drunk and in that moment, the lust he feels for that woman – and she could be any woman, right? – has blinded him, and whatever violent tendencies within him are heightened by this state of altered consciousness. I don’t think he’d act like this if he were sober. The line “But your clumsy kiss won’t taste so clever.” seems to agree with this; he belittles her “clumsy kiss” and the lack of cleverness in it, as if in any other circumstance, he could see she’s beneath him; the word “clever” pops up again in ‘Stars’, but it’s used differently there.

We were told straight away in the first line what is happening here: “it’s just cheap easy lust with chemicals.” This is a major clue. Despite this lust rearing its ugly, violent head, it’s not her he really wants. Right? “And all I need is a substitute, maybe in the dark she’ll look enough like you…” Oh god, that’s absolutely heart-breaking. He’s in this drunken stupor because he’s trying to forget a woman he loved. And he still loves her, deep down. But in the heat of the moment, or maybe the better way to phrase this is the heat in his body from all the alcohol he already imbibed, he’s willing to go off with this other woman because in the dark, he can accept her as a passable alternative, as “the perfect second best” who unfortunately (for her? for both parties?) is only “just for tonight”, also known as the one-night stand. And this is all happening because he can’t have the woman he really wants to be with. Then here comes the chorus:

I’ll take the shame, lust to blame. What if we ever meet again?
I’ll know your face, not your name. But we’ll know

These two lines reminded me of the Catholic guilt Morrissey has employed throughout his solo career post-Smiths. They read to me that he’s feeling guilt for the act, feeling the shame for what he’s doing with this woman who he will not care to remember in the morning, yet he wants to blame lust for his actions. Is this misplaced blame? Can you really blame lust in this case? It is probably worth now distinguishing the difference between lust and sexual desire, at least from a psychological standpoint. The former is done for gratification of self, while the latter is a symbiotic ‘dance’ of give and take, where both partners benefit. See how the word “lust” is used here, with the protagonist even admitting he’s not going to remember her name, only her face, because physically she reminds him of a former love. There is also an unsettling nature to “But we’ll know”: as much as he can try and forget what happened, what’s done will be done. And they will both leave in the morning, knowing their time together was nothing more than fleeting pleasure. This is also sad.

A shortened verse comes next, repeating the tone of the first verse; he’s trying to substitute this sexual pleasure (“Maybe I’ll find pleasure tonight?”) for what he really wants in his life: that woman that haunts him. The excuses he gives that the perfect second best who is before him is acceptable for this one purpose – “Maybe you wear clothes like she wears. Same coloured hair.” – fall flat because ultimately, he admits, “I’m sick forever”. Meaning that despite all these one-night stands he will have to try and erase the memory of the woman he loves, the deep, underlying feelings for her that he harbours will never leave him.

The add-on to the second and third choruses is further perplexing: “Our eyes were bright, out of sight. Two strangers caught behind the night.” Initially, I thought the first sentence meant that they went into this one-night stand with bright, young eyes, eyes wide open, and they knew exactly what they were doing, knowing it was being done in a clandestine way (“out of sight”, i.e., they’ve left together without their other friends knowing what’s happened) and accepted it for what it was. But the more I think about it, the second line throws you a curveball, as they were “Two strangers caught behind the night.” Just the word “caught” seems to indicate as if getting stuck in a terrible web of circumstance, i.e., the evening at the club where man and woman come across each other, bat eyelashes, and before long, they’re making out, all sensibility goes out the window, and next thing you know, lust has taken over and two strangers are in a hotel room somewhere, breathing heavily and having meaningless sex. I don’t think most people listening to this song are grasping this concept. Or maybe that was the point, to write a song so terribly poppy that it was unlikely for anyone to latch on to the real meaning?

The song never comes to a resolution, and I guess it’s not meant to: it’s left open-ended, and you’re left standing there, wondering what’s happened to the protagonist and if he was ever able to rid himself of the ghost. If not, it sounds like this could be a continuing vicious cycle of one-night stands, followed by this overwhelming shame he has to internalise, by himself, every time he sleeps with a woman who means nothing to him, because she will never compare favourably with the ideal woman he holds on to so tightly in his heart.

When I came across Conor Oberst’s ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’ (lyrics in the YouTube video description), the protagonist of his story gets his heart broken by an older woman, and now he’s having one-night stands because the hurt within him makes it impossible for him to open up emotionally to any other woman. Oberst’s protagonist comes across as callous, hard, and unfeeling, as well as unwilling to work through the pain of his heartbreak, even if working through that pain could set him free. I find it so painful to hear someone giving up on love in a song: “Now I do as I please and lie through my teeth / Someone might get hurt, but it won’t be me / She’ll probably feel cheap, but I just feel free, and a little bit empty.”

In the context of ‘Hold Fast’, especially since its one love song ‘Stars’ follows it, for some reason I feel more positive about ‘Maybe in the Dark’. In contrast to ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’, the protagonist of ‘Maybe in the Dark’ has already identified his actions as wrong. In fact, he’s beating himself up over it, calling them the both of them “dirt” and “trash” for giving into lust. The bigger question is whether unlike Oberst’s protagonist, is he willing to look deeply into himself and his heart to close the book on the woman that was part of his past history, so he can truly heal and allow himself to love another woman? I’ll be interested to see if we get some resolution on this in the third Crookes album.

Lastly, the song, in two forms. First, the black and white promo performance video. Second, a video I filmed on 15 March 2013 at this year’s SXSW in which you see George Waite playing bass and clearly hear its influence over the whole song.

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