Lyrical Reflections: The Perfect Space by the Avett Brothers

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Inspired by Laurie’s exploration of the connection between poems and musical lyrics at What She Read, and because it’s National Poetry Month, I decided to add a new feature. Do you ever have certain musical lyrics that get stuck in your head for months at a time? Sometimes it’s a whole song, sometimes it’s just a snippet. Sometimes you’re not even aware you were paying attention to the lyrics at all, when suddenly a sentence floats to the top of your conscious mind and you think, huh, what on earth does that mean? Or, yeh, I know exactly what she/he is talking about. Right on, sister/brother!. Or maybe you even think, what kind of bullshit is that? But something about it gets bonded to some set of neurons firing in your brain and you just can’t shake it.

Well, that happens to me, and so I thought, why not write about it? When a lyric gets stuck in my head like that, it feels like I’m mentally chewing on words. Gnawing on a phrase. Might as well chew with your mouth open, so to speak.

A great friend with a computer full of music downloaded The Avett Brothers, I and I Love You for me last summer in North Carolina, which seems appropriate (the “brothers” are from around Charlotte, North Carolina). I’ve been listening to the album ever since, but the particular lyrics that’s become stuck in my head the last few weeks is from “The Perfect Space.”

The Perfect Space

I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was.
I wanna have friends that will let me be
all alone when being alone is all that I need.

I wanna fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe in a volatile place.
And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.
Will you understand when I am too old of a man?
And will you forget when we have paid our debt
who did we borrow from?

Okay part two now clear the house.
The party’s over take the shouting and the people,
get out.
I have some business and a promise that I have to hold to.
I do not care what you assume or what the people told you.
Will you understand, when I am too old of a man?
Will you forget when we have paid our debts,
who did we borrow from, who did borrow from?

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

Let me say at the beginning that I am one of those people who is perfectly willing to tramp all over authorial intent. I haven’t read interviews with the Avett Brothers. They might explain somewhere exactly what this song is about for them, and that’s fine. But once you create art and put it out in the world, you’ve surrendered complete ownership of it and the ability to dictate what it will mean to people. So I’m going to talk about what the song means to me.

Let me also say that I’ve been told many times and in many contexts, “You’re reading too much into [blank].” Whatever. See above name for my blog. I don’t believe you can read too much into anything any more than you can think too much about something.

So, the lines that have particularly stuck in my head lately are the very last stanza. The line about “pride like my mother has/ And not like the kind in the bible that turns you bad.” is, well, hilarious. Perhaps just to adults who were raised in the South under various forms of Protestantism, but who didn’t hear about the evils of pride?

For me, this song is very much about parents and community and place. Perhaps about the loss of communities which for some of our parents’ generation, more easily provided that kind of “perfect space,” something “natural and safe.” The pride in a life that wasn’t necessarily about ambition and was maybe a little slower, but less competitive. My parents sometimes feel like my generation is in a rush to get all the things that they had to work for…a house, a certain figure on the paycheck, vacations in a certain place. Much of this might be the inevitable cross-generational griping, but I wonder if what it takes to feel affluent hasn’t changed some. How big of a house do we really need? What should we be proud of, in the end? What is the pride from the bible that makes you bad?

I also like the lines about debts and who you borrowed from. There’s a film I show sometimes in my classes called The Corporation, and it’s about 3 interesting hours worth of reflection on how corporations may not be the best structure in terms of their effects on society. There’s one interview with an executive from a carpet company whose talking about how he became aware of the importance of the environment and his own company’s impact on the environment. He uses the phrase “intergenerational tyranny” to describe the idea that we are making decisions about the environment which future generations will have to live with, and they will have had no say in those decisions. We are creating a debt, borrowing in many ways from future generations. Who are we borrowing from? Where do we pay our debts to?

The final line that I’ve been gnawing on is the one about friends, “I wanna have friends/ That I can trust/ Who love me for the man I’ve become not the man that I was.” Isn’t that hard, sometimes? It’s good to have friends who have known you your whole life, but sometimes seems hard as hell, too. Assuming you change some over the course of your life, how do you take your friends along with you? What common ground do you find with friends who might belong to a life you’ve left behind? Have you ever had friends and thought to yourself, they don’t really know who I am anymore?

I’ll say one final thing about this song. If you listen to it, you’ll see it’s kind interrupted in the middle by this complete change in tempo, as if suddenly a different song has started. This is the “part two” where we clear the house. The first, oh, 20 or so times I listened to this album I hated this part and thought it was fairly weird and ridiculous. But thinking about the song now, it seems a little bit like life. There are moments when you’re feeling deep and nostalgic. Thinking about getting old and dying and what your life means. And then sometimes you just don’t give a shit, all in all, and would rather just party, just live on the surface a bit. And that’s okay, too.

Good songs, like good books, sometimes can help you give a name to things, make connections and think about your own life. What songs or artists do that for you?

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Comments

  1. I'm not a huge Katy Perry fan but her song Firework is one of my favorites. The line about all the doors closing on you so you can open one that leads you to the perfect road is really inspiring and true.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to this song – and for your exploration into meaning and interpretation. What is the song without the listener, after all?

  3. I never would have connected this song to “The Corporation”: thanks for making the leap for me, and for your generous and nuanced musings here. I'll keep returning to see what you choose next.
    Look to a pair of old folkies for tomorrow's 'Words & Music' at What She Read; I'll be curious to read what you think of them…

  4. It is SO about what you just described… listen to the live version at Bojangles Coliseum, which is actually in Charlotte. At the end of the song he says “we’re starting to wonder why we even left” so… I can’t think of another meaning for the song. Love it by the way, one of my favorites by The Avett Bros.

  5. P.S. The Avett Bros. is my favorite band… hope you got into them after listening to this, they always get me deep; it’s hard paying attention to them without crying.

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