Song Analysis #41: Keira Knightley – A Step You Can’t Take Back

Title: ‘A Step You Can’t Take Back’
Where to find it: ‘Begin Again’ film soundtrack (2014, ALXNDR)
Performed by: Keira Knightley
Words by: not sure, but the song is credited to John Carney, Gregg Alexander (known more famously as the frontman of the ’90s band The New Radicals), and Danielle Brisebois

I’d meant to see Begin Again and then it was out of the cinema before I knew it. A couple months later, I went out for brunch and a new friend said to avoid it, because there were too much swearing in it for a nice young lady like me. Okay.

On the way back from my last trip to the UK, I couldn’t sleep, so I flicked through the in-flight entertainment choices on the tv in the seat in front of me. Hmm. Begin Again. Shall I watch this? For reasons only certain people would understand, there are so many eerie coincidences in this film that it seems written for me and I was supposed to see this film while leaving the country, where I seem to have left behind someone forever. I won’t ruin the film for you (the interpretation probably will, so here’s your alert, SPOILERS!), but if you’ve seen the trailer, or even if you’ve contemplated for a moment the actual title of it, you know what the film is about. It’s just unusual it is set in the world that myself and many of my friends and acquaintances like to call home: the music business.

In the story the song was written under emotional duress, so it makes sense that it’s pretty touching when you’re presented with it the first time in the film. It undergoes an evolution through the film, as does Keira Knightley’s character Gretta. What seemed to be a quite hopeless situation for her character at the beginning ends up at the end with her getting closure that what happened was for the best, which is most often all we can ask about situations that are out of our control.

Sometimes we think things are meant to be. And when our hearts are hurting and broken, in the moment we can’t see what we come to accept later: maybe it wasn’t.

First, the words:

Verse 1
So you find yourself at this subway
With your world in a bag by your side
And all at once it seemed like a good way
You realize it’s the end of the line
For what it’s worth

Here comes the train upon the track
And there goes the pain, it cuts to black
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back?

Verse 2
Taken all the punches you could take
Took ’em all right on the chest
Now the camel’s back is breaking
Again, again
For what it’s worth

Here comes the train upon the track
And there goes the pain, it cuts to black
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back?

Did she love you?
Did she take you down?
Was she on her knees when she kissed your crown?
Tell me what you found

Modified chorus
Here comes the rain, so hold your hat
And don’t pray to God, ’cause He won’t talk back
Are you ready for the last act?
To take a step you can’t take back, back, back?
You can’t take back, back, back.

So you find yourself at this subway
With your world in a bag by your side

Now, the analysis:

The song has two related but pretty different interpretations. “Train”, “pain” and “rain” are used as rhyming points – rather effectively, I might add – to link what is happening throughout the story. The train is also used successfully, like the image of a road in many other times in popular song, to indicate the great journey of life. But here is where the rail line splits: is it about suicide, or is it about the end of a relationship?

If you take it on the suicide / ending your life track, the more obvious path, the clues are pretty clear cut. The protagonist has reached the lowest point of her life and wants to end it. She’s holding all her worldly possessions “with your world in a bag by your side”, a pathetic state. If she were to jump in front of a moving New York City subway train, death would be instantaneous, “and there goes the pain, it cuts to black.” People who are feeling suicidal seem to have this fanciful yet incorrect notion that if they kill themselves, the pain is gone. Not really. They are gone from this plane but the pain then gets transferred to those who they left behind. You can argue the rain imagery is either tears or an sign of rebirth (similar to baptism and having the old sins being washed away in favour of the new).

However, if you analyse it in the context of the film, it’s not about suicide at all. It’s about the end of a relationship or even more strongly, about a woman challenging her man about him taking a step that will change their lives forever. In the film, Adam Levine’s character David was in a relationship with Keira Knightley’s Gretta that seemed fine on the surface when the two of them relocated to New York City while his career was just beginning. Until he basically sold his soul to the devil and had an affair with one of his producers. The “she” in the bridge can stand for either this woman he had an affair with or the tempting side of the music industry itself:

Did she love you?
Did she take you down?
Was she on her knees when she kissed your crown?
Tell me what you found

Both crimes committed by David are cardinal sins in Gretta’s book: they are singer/songwriters that have bonded over their commitment to being true to their art and the former goes against artistic integrity, and the latter of course results in her heart shattering when she learns she’s been cheated on. In a song. (I’ve had songs written for and written about me before, but I’ve yet to have learned about the transgressions of someone close to me written up in one. I can’t even imagine.) In Gretta’s case, it’s the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate knife through the heart.

As the film progresses, Gretta, now David-less, slowly finds her feet again, actually flourishing in the absence of him. It’s interesting we hear this song early on the film, because she had written when she was suffering the lowest of the lows, and as a result, when she plays it, egged onstage by her best friend Steve, played by James Corden, she seems sullen, almost not all there. It is left up to Mark Ruffalo’s character’s Dan, who hears promise and truth in Gretta’s words and singing, to take notice and give Gretta the confidence boost and just plain human kindness she didn’t even really know she needed.

However, as we get further along in the plot, the song comes to take on a new meaning. The song was written for and directed towards David and that significance is still preserved. But how it has changed is really interesting. He returns to New York City as a huge star and tries to make amends with her, realising that even with all the fame he’s gotten by selling out, he still misses her and wants her back. He invites her to a high-profile show at the Gramercy, where she is hopeful that he is the man she fell in love with, but she realises as he commercially butchers the song she wrote as a Christmas present for him years ago, ‘Lost Stars’, that she no longer needs him.

Are you ready for the last act? / To take a step you can’t take back?,” which formerly was sung by Gretta dripping with vitriol, can now be sung – and heard – more sweetly. And honestly. But still as a challenge. David took the step you can’t take back, professionally and personally. The last act was where their relationship ended. While Gretta gets her sweet revenge in the end – she writes, records, and releases an album he’s truly impressed by her efforts, and it becomes a overnight success, though I can tell you, please do not be fooled, that kind of success is rarely that easy – what comes across loud and clear is very true: what’s done is done. And you can never go back to the way things were.

Lastly, the song in two forms: one, as Knightley performed it in the film, bare and spare (turn up the volume), and in its full form on the soundtrack, with all its backing.

19 thoughts on “Song Analysis #41: Keira Knightley – A Step You Can’t Take Back

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. I loved that movie and watched it with my 13-year-old son and he agreed with me that it was about suicide until the end when he said, “No, the step was him cheating on her”, and it totally made sense. So, I looked up the title of the song and analysis, and here I am. Very nice. Thank you.

  2. The first time I heard the song (when I was watching the movie for the first time), I didn’t think of the possible reference to suicide. And I’m someone who looks for depressing views on lyrics. It probably wasn’t until my fourth or fifth time listening to it that I thought- wait, is this about suicide? I just thought the more obvious meaning was the end of the relationship thing, but if you think about the lyrics, it does seems to really link with the suicide idea. In the movie it doesn’t seem like the Gretta character is that bleak about life, so it probably is about her relationship ending, unless it’s also about the Dan character and he’s the one that is going to eventually going to throw his life away, possibly by suicide or just drinking himself to death. The step he can’t take back might be either his life or maybe just that it will get to a point where his family won’t want anything to do with him. Maybe its just about one of these characters or maybe it’s suppose to be a double meaning and about both of the characters.

  3. Well, I think the song is about suicide. When Dan tells Greta that he connected with her song because earlier that day he had entertained the thought of suicide, she doesn’t tell him that “it’s not about suicide…” or something like that. Instead she looks touched by what he said.

    When she sings “Did she love you? Did she take you down?” seems to me an elaboration on the character’s reasons to suicide.

    It could be that Greta might not have been that depressed to consider killing herself. In that case the song was not meant literally, but exaggerated the outcome of the situation (artistic license).

    I came to this page because I want to understand what is the meaning of this: “Was she on her knees when she kissed your crown?”. If someone can help, thank you.

    1. Hi Juan, thanks for your comments. I wondered myself if she felt so bad about being betrayed that she wanted to end her life; it wouldn’t be the first time someone felt that way about lost love.

      I didn’t feel particularly strong about the line about “kissing your crown”, which is why I left it out of my analysis. I will say though in the context of the film and my experience with the music business, it probably was meant as a jab at Adam Levine’s character and the affair he had with his female producer – if she was on her knees, that indicates a subservient position, such as that a groupie might take to an idol or “king” as Levine’s character David. The question is asked coldly, as if the subtext is “how could you?”

      Just my 2 cents though.

  4. Hi, I liked your review of this song.
    Here are some of my thoughts on the points made above.
    Stepping out of the film for a second, the song, being created for the movie very cleverly combines both the feelings of Grettas betrayal and Dans suicidal thoughts.
    It struck me straight away that the song aligned with the moment just before Dan goes into the bar after getting off the subway. I wonder how far away he was from taking that ‘step’. He also says to the preacher “will he (god) answer” which fits with the god won’t talk back line.
    As for the kiss the crown line, I believe it refers to Grettas feelings about how ‘small’ a man her ex has become because he’s cheated and sold out, and yet is still worshipped.

    1. Thanks for your insight, Wayne! I must have had my blinders on about it being about Gretta – since she “wrote” it – and didn’t even consider the application on Dan’s own life. Not sure how I missed that, but thank you for pointing out that likely connection πŸ™‚

  5. Hi, thank you for writing your interpretation of this song. Its very honest and I think it exactly captures what the song is trying to put across.

    I saw this movie sometime back and I liked all the songs mostly, but have been hearing this song for the past few days and I think I can so relate to what Gretta’s character was feeling when she wrote it. I think the song is about accepting the truth and trying to find a way to get on with one’s life despite everything. The lyrics are simple but they bring out the feelings one might have when one is going through a difficult phase in one’s life, specially with regard to an emotional relationship. Thank you again.

    1. Thank you Kanupriya for your comment. Definitely, I agree with you that it’s useful in the context of a difficult phase in a person’s life. I wrote this analysis last year when I was going through a bad time, and some 9 months later it is providing me solace in a different way.

  6. Can you recommend songs to me with melody like this? It’s just beautiful I want more songs like this thanks πŸ™‚

    1. Do you mean slow stuff? There’s a whole wide world of music out there and I’m not sure what you’re looking for.

      Best checking out us on Twitter at @theprintedword and @tgtf and see if you find something you like there!

  7. Just hearing that song again by chance and was searching for someone sharing her thoughts about it and found your page. Thank you for this beautiful analysis.
    One of the scenes I love the most in this film is when Greeta sings the song alone on stage with her guitar and Dan basically wakes up and notices how great it really is and when he imagines what instruments would fit best for backing. For me as someone feeling deeply sometimes when the right music plays, this is most touching.
    Anyway, thanks for writing about this song and the film! πŸ™‚

  8. It’s a song that uses the idea of committing suicide as an analogy of cheating on someone. You risk your current life with your partner as ending, the idea is that a relationship is a person in and of themselves. It’s a step you can’t take back.

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