Sunday, 6 February 2011
Scritti Politti - The Word Girl (1985/ No. 6/ 14 weeks/ Virgin)
"Don't feel sorry for lover-boy/ though he wants the world to love him/ then he goes and spoils it all/ for love" (Scritti Politti, 1988)
The title alone has several meanings.
"The first time baby, that I came to you...": As a 12 year-old listener I thought that the Word Girl was supposed to be an actual woman, a rather bookish object of desire;
To do what I should do to long for you to hear
I open up my heart ... and watch her name appear
"The second time baby, that I came to you...": A little later I realised that the Word Girl was as much a creation on the part of the singer as a specific Girl, the actual loved other becoming rationalised, explained and formulated into a construct of language;
A word for you to use a girl without a cause
A name for what you lose when it was never yours
"The third time baby, that I came to you...": Decades on, I noticed that the title is sometimes written as 'The Word "Girl"': the song not even necessarily being about any actual Girl at all, but the effect of the idea of a Girl - as described and written through language - upon the singer.
Name the girl outgrew the girl was never real
She stands for your abuse the girl is no ideal
It's a word for what you do in a world of broken rules
She found a place for you along her chain of fools (...)
Oh how your flesh and blood be-came the word!
A fiendishly conceptual song, then. Something that is superficially a love song which then turns out to be a conceptual song about the construction of meaning does sound, when you describe it, like the sort of thing that would be wearisomely arch to actually listen. The reality is anything but the case. There are two very simple reasons for this; the music and the singing.
The music is dubalicious perfect pristine pop, ostensibly reggae but always something other, that transcends simple genre description. It serves two functions; sounding aquatic, shimmering and endlessly echoing, leaving you with the feeling as it progresses that you're listening to something far more expansive than the few minutes that it lasts for; but this echoing effect also sounds gleaming and reflective, the endless echoes also the endless reflections of life in a hall of mirrors, the singers lovelorn thoughts of the girl forever reflecting in on themselves in a tantalising but intangible text. Both of these effects accurately evoke the sensation of knowing that you are in love and at the same time not knowing the loved other...
Although the action of turning a woman into a construction of language has a wicked fairytale-like quality as a metaphor, I don't think that many listeners hearing this would feel that the singer was at all a bad person, but a daydreaming romantic idealist. A lot of this weight is carried by the gorgeousness of Green Gartside's light tenor voice, an instrument once described as carrying a "debonair ruination", ideal for conveying wistfulness and fascination. This is especially apparent in the song's endless coda, two minutes of the singer's honeyed voice repeating
He's reflecting on what was lost and what could never be; realising the actual beating heart of the woman behind his construction of her; and yet still lost in the rapture of putting this woman into language.
Its not just a conceptual exercise, but its a single with a genuine heart, and therein lies the source of its tremendous effect.