Two weeks ago we looked at an unabashed love song; this week we have an ambivalent, though equally catchy, one.
So: we have the Man, and we have Woman A and Woman B. The Man is currently with Woman A, but is making his case to Woman B, and he hits pretty much all the major strategies in the playbook. First he advises her not to let her illusions of morality get in the way, because he can see the passion beneath. This is always flattering, to be told you have hidden depths. Then he tells her he has his own hidden pain, and it’s often in the past come out in bad behavior–but that she change all that. Also quite flattering, plus, she’d have to be inhuman not to want to help, right? Don’t listen to your friends about me, he says. (There’s probably some Pick-Up Artist’s book about how one of the first steps in seduction is isolating the target). Finally he moves in for the kill: “She don’t love me like you,” yes, I’m in a relationship now, but if that’s what stopping you, hey, don’t sweat it, you’re better than her, the things you do to me she can’t even come close to, she is nothing compared to you…
Then there’s a transition with the phrase “All those years gone by…” and the Man is speaking to Woman A. Perhaps the relationship with Woman B has been consummated, or perhaps it’s enough that Woman A knows the attempt took place. “I only want to find a way to make it hard for you,” he admits: I’m telling you these things to hurt you, and I want to hurt you because I love you and you don’t love me or because you love me and I don’t love you or because you don’t love me enough or because we love each other and my life still sucks so I’m going to take that out on you…Ingmar Bergman territory, or maybe “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
As the man repeats his desire to make it hard for Woman A, her voice enters the song in counterpoint, in the form of a female chorus crooning “don’t fail me now, don’t fail me now.” We can still make this work, she’s saying, we don’t have to hurt each other like this. The Man weakens: “I only want to find a way to make it hard for you” becomes “I only want to find a way to make it up to you.” This breaks down entirely into a more generalized statement, “I only want to find a way, I only want to fi-i-i-i-nd,” the last word elongated into an existential cry. Then back to the “She don’t love me like you” chorus, but this time addressed to both women at the same time. Neither loves him like the other does, neither loves him the way he wants to be loved. Maybe neither loves him at all.
All this pyschodrama happens against a bouncy melody and sha la la harmonies and handclaps. There’s a one-bar pause where you expect the irresistable chorus to come in but the song makes you wait for it that’s awesome, delayed gratification as hook, as well as a comment on the song’s narrator and his inability to delay gratification.
The Magic Numbers are from England. They are made of up of siblings, two brother-sisters pairs, whose voices lock in just right. Their albums feature far too many long, self-loathing ballads. Write more poppy, peppy, complicated songs like this, Magic Numbers!