Low Light

A short list of some things I love: birds, traveling, landscapes, songs that express complex ideas/emotional states.  I have to believe that Jeff Ament loves these things two, particularly that last item, as most of his lyrics for Pearl Jam tend to use cryptic language, half-phrases and snippets of imagery to forward their purpose(s).  “Low Light” is perhaps the best example of this, and as of yet Ament’s finest lyrical hour.  Songs like “Ghost”, “Pilate”, and “Gods Dice” are occasionally clunky, with one or two lines that somehow slipped past better judgment; “Low Light”, while just as obscure, is thoroughly graceful and poignant in its language.

The problem with most mainstream pop music is that what you hear is exactly what you get, i.e.: this is a breakup song, this is “You’re not good enough for me song”, this is a “I love you and am happy about it” or a “I love you even though I should know better” song. There’s nothing that challenges listeners to think in critical or new ways about themselves or their world (though the danceable aspect of pop music is not to be underestimated, worth-wise).  I love “Low Light” for, among other reasons, it’s distinctly Ament-ish expression of the state of mind he further described in an interview:  “It was a kind of gratefulness at finding that place of calm and peace at my center and getting a glimpse of the person I could choose to be.

It’s as difficult to express in normal language exactly what he’s trying to get across, never mind fragments like “Voice goes by / Two birds is what they’ll see / Getting lost upon their way.” But it works perfectly in context with the music, which achieves the centered calm Ament articulates above. Which is not to say that the song is happy or sad; “Low Light” is neither and both, the same way that human beings at any given moment are a cluster of opposites, understanding and not understanding, grateful and grieving, longing and accepting, all of the above. Some lunkhead once reviewed Yield and used “Low Light” as an example of how Pearl Jam’s influence had unfortunately led to bands like Hootie & the Blowfish. It wasn’t just a case of rock critic snobbery, but a truly ridiculous statement to make if you know anything about music.  Ament’s tune is all about subtlety and impressionism, achieving its mood through odd meters and rhythmic shifts, rustic yet original arrangements, as much as through verbal language. When Pearl Jam finally unveiled the song in a live setting, 3.5 years after the release of its album, fans were understandably and rightfully overjoyed.  “Low Light” is a treasure.

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~ by Michael on August 13, 2007.

12 Responses to “Low Light”

  1. On an album worth of great songs, “Lowlight” does its part to stick out amongst the pile. I still can’t believe this is a Jeff song. I am not the biggest fan of some of Jeff’s song, but this one, in one fell swoop, seems to make up for everything I’ve ever held against the guy. Of course, because of its sporadic appearance on setlists, this is one of just a few songs in the band’s catalogue that I’ve not been able to hear in person.

    Lyrically, it’s all over the map, but oddly enough (as C-13 said) it’s neither happy nor sad. The whole song just plays it straight and I love it. I know that many people hold this song dear to them. I remember that after the first live performance of “Lowlight”, a friend of mine was devastated when Ed changed “I need the light…I’ll find my way” to “I DON’T need the light…I’ll find my way.” My friend had personalized those lyrics so intensely that he felt amost betrayed by EV’s lyrical ad-lib. I think this is one of those songs that fans have very personal feelings about.

  2. Have you heard Robert Ashley’s Private Parts album? The lyrics/words work in a similar way, if I’m reading you right.

  3. I haven’t, but I’ll definitely look into it. Most of my favorite musicians navigate some complicated corner of emotional territory.

  4. Hootie and the Blowfish?????

    I have no idea what Jeff was thinking about when he wrote the lyrics, but the music and lyrics work together so well that it seems like the lyrics mean something. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of the story behind this song as two lovers dying together after a car crash. In the twilight, with snow lightly falling around the wreckage.

    “Reeling is what they say”
    “Sidetracked, low light”
    “Blood runs dry”
    “Car crash, low light”

    And the “two birds getting lost upon their way” are their spirits flying away.

    The last few lines,

    “I need the light
    I’ll find my way from wrong, what’s real?
    Your dream I see,”

    as they build to that climax and Eddie holds the word “see” always leave me feeling exhilarated.

    I would like to see it live, but maybe Matt should sing the backup vocals instead of Jeff.

  5. Strange but true, Su, I have very much the same vision of the song as you…except in mine, they’re bonnie and clyde…that’s where the masks come in, you see. As for the tautology of rock critic snobbery, i stand proud and proclaim in the name of my father, who was a rock critic/lunkhead, like his father before him, that kettles are indeed black. And inspired by Jeff’s beautiful “Low Light” Zen koan, I say Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon, little grasshoppers.

  6. If you’d like to hear Robert Ashley, just drop me a line (imathers at gmail dot com). He’s hard to find, and it’d be small payment for how much I enjoy the blog.

  7. ole, you’re talking about the guy you wish was dead so that you can play MAN OF THE HOUR at his funeral? Or was it PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE?

  8. For me, the lyrics in Lowlight don’t have to make sense. The words just sort of glide over the music, and more than explaining the sense of calm Jeff was feeling, it sort of gives an aural equivalent of that feeling. Or something.

  9. NoCoder said – “I remember that after the first live performance of “Lowlight”, a friend of mine was devastated when Ed changed “I need the light…I’ll find my way” to “I DON’T need the light…I’ll find my way.” My friend had personalized those lyrics so intensely that he felt amost betrayed by EV’s lyrical ad-lib.”

    I personally think the correct lyric is “I don’t need the light”, which is how it’s typed in the liner notes. I think he sings a quick ‘don’t’, you can barely hear it. That’s just me. I also think the first two words of “Once” are “I admit” with a hard accent on the last syllable, instead of “I admit it”. The liner notes say “I admit” too. I digress.

  10. Never said I wasn’t a snob, Oleyever. 😉

  11. Sidenote: if you haven’t checked out Ian’s catablog on the incredible band Low yet, click on his name or “Too Many Words, Too Many Words” in the links column. Low are not to be missed, and neither is his blog.

  12. […] 10. Low Light […]

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