A Pretty OK Song: "Spit On A Stranger" - Pavement
English was always my favorite class in school, and I wrote all through college—and occasionally continue today. But since I started playing the guitar in middle school, I've always noticed the music of a track first, second, and third. Only after several listens and some pretty intense concentration do I start to really grasp lyrics, and by that time, I've already determined what I think to be the emotional message of the song based on what I can gather from its collected guitar riffs, piano passages, and drum fills.
Because of that, I love songs with lyrics that don't match up to the tone of the instrumentation. I'll never forget the first time I realized that under its catchy, summery pop groove, Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" is a song about kids killing other kids for their shoes. It really blew my mind, and I felt the same way the first time I bothered to look at the lyrics to Pavement's 1999 song "Spit On A Stranger."
It's a slow song, buoyed by this beautiful, glassy clean guitar pattern and some soaring lead guitar notes that float through the background. Stephen Malkmus's voice still has the detached slacker quality that it always does, but this time, there's some vulnerability, some fragility to it as he reaches up into his falsetto on each line of the verses: "Whatever you fe-eel / Whatever it ta-akes." If I had to characterize the song in one word, I'd probably go with optimistic or hopeful.
Considering that the name of the song is "Spit On A Stranger," I feel like I should have caught on sooner. But it still took me almost five listens before I finally paid attention to the lyrics of the chorus:
I'll be thinking long and hard about the things you said to me
Like a bitter stranger
And now I see the long and short, the middle and what's in between
I could spit on a stranger
You're a bitter stranger
Those are hardly the words of someone gunning for optimistic or hopeful. But at the same time, Malkmus (or his character) isn't as unambiguously finished with the subject of his former love as the first chorus makes it seem:
And now I see the long and short of it, and I could make it last
The narrator is deeply conflicted, to say the least. He exists in that impossible space where you know something has gone bad, but even if you know the reason, you still can't quite put your finger on why—able to recall the good times while also recognizing that this is a different person than who you fell in love with.
I love songs that are full of contradictions because they make you peel away the layers, like an onion (or a parfait, as it were). Each new discovery enhances your understanding of the song and (I'd like to think) deepens your love for it just a bit, which makes you more eager for the next experience like it—so you don't wind up like Stephen Malkmus's former lover at the end of "Spit On A Stranger":
I'll try the things you'll never try
Until next week.