Title: ‘First Day of My Life’
Where to find it: ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ (2005, Saddle Creek Records)
Performed by: Bright Eyes
Words by: Conor Oberst
Last year, I was particularly taken by a telly advert for American real estate company Zillow with a little snippet of what sounded like a sweet love song. Good pairing, I surmised. I didn’t think much about it until last month, when randomly Stuart Maconie played the song from where that snippet came from. I maximised my iPlayer window to see what song it was and by whom. What? Bright Eyes?!?
I can’t even pretend to be a hipster and say I know a lot about Bright Eyes. Because I honestly don’t. DC radio stations don’t play them. I can’t even remember the exact details, but one of my friends who loved Bright Eyes played me two songs and I couldn’t get past Conor Oberst’s voice, and some of the folks I used to write with revered him as a god (in a borderline obsessive kind of way) and taken together, I have to be honest, I just wasn’t interested to investigate further. I’m still not fond of Oberst’s voice, but I was intrigued enough about the opening lyrics of ‘First Day of My Life’ included in that real estate tv spot to read on. I don’t do this for other song analyses, but considering that he’s considered by many to be one of the best songwriters of the ’90s and Noughties, I decided to read other people’s thoughts on the song first before I began my own analysis. Frankly, I was surprised and a bit shocked at some of the interpretations I read.
I recall a conversation I had with a English musician friend of mine when his band were visiting Boston and I went up to see them. We laughed about how ‘Every Breath You Take’ is the stereotypical worst choice for a wedding song you could ever choose: why would you select a song about a stalker for your first dance? In similar fashion, I was gobsmacked by how many people said “what a sweet love song this is” and “this will be our wedding song” in regards to this one by Oberst. Are we even listening to the same song? You should probably stop reading this entry right now if either thought has come into your mind regarding this song, because from this point forward, all I’ll say is…we can agree to disagree.
Next week, in a first for Music in Notes, I’ve decided I will segue, hopefully elegantly, from this one to another one by an entirely different band. The song that will be revisited next week is one that I have come to believe that its writer took cues from this Bright Eyes’ song’s ‘Digital Ash in a Digital Urn’ companion, ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’. Watch this space…
First, the words:
This is the first day of my life
Swear I was born right in the doorway
I went out in the rain suddenly everything changed
They’re spreading blankets on the beach
Yours is the first face that I saw
I think I was blind before I met you
Now I don’t know where I am
I don’t know where I’ve been
But I know where I want to go
And so I thought I’d let you know
That these things take forever
I especially am slow
But I realize that I need you
And I wondered if I could come home
Remember the time you drove all night
Just to meet me in the morning
And I thought it was strange you said everything changed
You felt as if you’d just woke up
And you said, “this is the first day of my life
I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you
But now I don’t care I could go anywhere with you
And I’d probably be happy”
So if you want to be with me
With these things there’s no telling
We just have to wait and see
But I’d rather be working for a paycheck
Than waiting to win the lottery
Besides maybe this time is different
I mean I really think you like me
Now, the analysis:
For me, the title ‘First Day of My Life’ conjures up several different images. One is religious: how people say they are ‘reborn’ if they are baptized later in life or adopt a new spirituality. Another is sexual: who hasn’t been baffled, then made uncomfortable by the realisation that the Stylistics’ ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ is about reclaimed virginity? Yet another is what I’m guessing what the people who gloss over the meaning of the lyrics come away with: love has the ability to transform the way you think and view the world.
In this song, Oberst doesn’t even attempt what we consider the traditional song structure of verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus. So with that in mind, I’m going to tackle this song into the five sections the song breaks up neatly into. In part 1, Oberst uses arguably one of the most overworn cliches in popular song: the door. Whoever came up with that proverb, “when one door closes, another door opens”, I want to give them a swift kick in the rear. Any allusion to this in lyrics causes me to yawn. Granted, he frames it in a unique way, I will give him that: “Swear I was born right in the doorway”. What does he mean? Was he left there in yet another cliche, the one in films where a baby is left in a basket at the church door? Whatever is going on here in part 1, the protagonist is feeling like a new chapter in his life is beginning. He “went out in the rain suddenly everything changed”: he took the chance to step out of that doorway, thinking he would be stepping out into the light, but instead, the weather was bad. Some analyses of this song say that the “they’re laying blankets on the beach” suggest it’s indicative of Oberst’s own struggles with mental illness, but I didn’t read that at all. Laying out blankets on a beach, in preparation for a picnic or sunbathing, is indicative of a good day out. It may have been raining for him, but the rest of the world goes on…and the world is happy. He could have said instead, “the birds are singing”, or used something non-human to describe this, but instead he described the world going on the way it’s supposed to, with the actions of actual humankind. He ventured out and could see this first-hand: those are steps of courage.
Part 2 flies in the face of what is yet another overused song cliche: love is blind. Instead, the voice of the song is insisting that the woman he’s looking at now is the first face he saw, that before he reached this “first day”, he was blind, but after being reborn, he can see now. I also sense that the rebirth made him young again. (See first paragraph and reclaimed virginity.) “Now I don’t know where I am / I don’t know where I’ve been”: has he forgotten what he happened before? Did the folks of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gotten to him? Or has he come to terms with his past and forgiven everyone that has caused him pain? In any event, he says, “but I know where I want to go”: with this woman he has now found, his new ideal.
Vulnerability is the theme of part 3. “And so I thought I’d let you know / That these things take forever”: what is taking forever? Presumably, things to come full circle for real love to blossom. “I especially am slow” seems to indicate he’s a late bloomer. “But I realize that I need you / And I wondered if I could come home” feels clingy to me; we’re not sure why he needs her and why he’s asking if he could come “home”, the latter of which I’m guessing is not a physical location, but the way she makes him feel welcome, but more importantly, safe and secure. Note how part 3 connects back to part 2.
The reason why I don’t think this song is just a simple love song becomes evident in part 4. *She* drove all night to meet him in the morning, not the other way around. She was the one to bend over backward for *him*. Through this, she showed him how she felt, even before he was ‘reborn’. And before he’d reached that equivalent point, he thought her overtures were ridiculous: “And I thought it was strange you said everything changed / You felt as if you’d just woke up”. Then he reminds her what she had said to him: “And you said, ‘this is the first day of my life / I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you / But now I don’t care I could go anywhere with you / And I’d probably be happy'”. She reveals that she might have died before the two of them met. Was she suffering from an illness and didn’t think she would live? Or maybe she had tried to kill herself before they’d met but had been unsuccessful in ending her life. This isn’t a happy sunshine and rainbows song. She’s not even entirely sure if going off with him is the right thing, because she’s not caring where they’d be going together. It’s more of a “well, maybe this a better idea more than anything else I have going in my life” vs. “you’re the best thing to ever happen to me”, doesn’t it? Oberst also works in the word “probably” in the last line of part 4. She knows this is no sure thing.
And he accepts this in the start of part 5: “So if you want to be with me / With these things there’s no telling / We just have to wait and see / But I’d rather be working for a paycheck / Than waiting to win the lottery”. Do we want to work for this relationship, or are we waiting for Lady Luck to shine down on us? He’s also accepting that he’s not going to be the one to make this the Best Relationship in History, Ever. He’s a realist. The last two lines of the song are rather interesting too: “Besides maybe this time is different / I mean I really think you like me”. Is this couple trying to start over and he’s saying “this time” could be different with a different start? Or is he meaning that “this time” for *him* is different because he thinks she really likes him, and in the past this was not the case?
I can see where people are seeing hope in this song – I find it mostly in this last section – but overall, the song makes me feel very unsettled. It doesn’t make me happy; I mostly get sadness out of it. The protagonist of the song is all excited to start his “new life” but the woman he wants to be with reached that point a long time ago in their relationship, so where does that leave the two of them? I guess if there was a virtue to this song, it’s Oberst’s openness about how he’s feeling in the now.
Lastly, the song, in its promo video form. It’s cheesy and doesn’t tell us anything about the story of the song at all. Maybe that was Oberst’s intention, to detract from the meaning he meant and confuse us all?