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Thread: SOTW: You and Me, Bess

  1. #1
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    Feb 2011

    SOTW: You and Me, Bess

    I'm so sorry I forgot about this! My week took an unexpected turn towards utter chaos, but it's no excuse~

    this song is better


    First off, I think this is a really beautiful song, and perhaps one of the more subtly brilliant tracks on the album. It has this gorgeously lazy, balmy atmosphere that simmers but never quite explodes, with a progression that chooses to swell and crest texturally and timbrally rather than harmonically, with lots of lovely layers of warm brass and close vocal harmony and a restrained and graceful closing passage. The lyricism is perhaps some of the best and most image-driven on the album, crafting vivid landscapes, potent symbols and unique and memorable metaphors. I especially love the wintry, desolate language of the opening passage; the idea of a pattering heartbeat being “snow falling from eaves”; the anxious danger of having “ears cocked up like a gun”; the stream-of-consciousness death scene (I like to think the narrator has just been hanged at the moment of the peaceful “stare as I hang” line); the brilliant likening of “Mother Nature” to a “puking bird” or a “[cold-eyed] gull” in all her slimy, unpleasant, hungry, hurtful, yet ultimately nurturing glory.

    Similar to Have One on Me and Go Long from the same album, the narrative of You and Me, Bess reimagines a pre-existing tale, and, like those tracks, plot features are warped and altered, the literary references ultimately acting only as a frame of comparison for what is basically a wholly original story. Dick Turpin, often accompanied by his horse, Black Bess, was a highwayman, robber and murderer of the early 18th century, was executed in 1739 for horse-theft, and eventually became mythologised and fictionalised in the Victorian era as a dashing hero and cultural icon, following a literary tradition of romanticising criminal behaviour. Perhaps most notable of such representations is the William Harrison Ainsworth novel Rookwood, which climaxes with a scene in which the horse Black Bess dies under the stress of escape while the charismatic Turpin survives. This obviously contrasts the outcome of the song; where Dick Turpin uses and abuses Bess for his own gains in Rookwood, the same character in You and Me, Bess is shown to make a sacrifice for the horse. In feminising the narrator, Joanna is possibly stating that femininity is self-diminishing while masculinity is ruthless. Meanwhile, the romantic nature of the Dick Turpin legend is contrasted by the barrenness of landscape here, the cold beach in opposition to the lush Epping Forest. The la’s that punctuate verses and close the song give it a kind of self-awareness as to the fact that it is a song being sung, perhaps with dreamy reminiscence of old folk songs sung of Turpin which might indicate that the emotions on display are age-old.

    I think the song really does hold up to multiple interpretations. It is in some respect a counterpart to No Provenance, a song that reads as being about having certain personal values supressed and damaged by a repressive relationship (the horse representing these values in weakened form) and a relationship being changed with recognition of this past self and with regained perspective. In this respect, You and Me, Bess is a sequel, with the horse now elegant and regal, “arching [her] hooves like a crane” and “[making herself] known” and filled with a bold, shapely vitality that wholly contrasts the “ghost” horse of No Provenance, and perhaps shows a reignition of personal values, reigned and then freed, that is the cause of the death of the narrator (and, therefore, the relationship set up in disc 1). (The ambiguity of meaning and interpretation is perhaps represented by the androgyny of the narrator, who apparently represents Turpin yet remains nameless and retains Joanna’s vocal femininity: it is unknown from what perspective the narrator is speaking.)

    On the other hand, it is easy to read this as a song about self-sacrifice, in which Bess perhaps represents not Joanna herself, but her lover. The sacrifice here is ultimate – taking the blame for a crime and being punished with death – yet the horse remains apathetic, “arching [her] hooves” without much regard for the narrator’s wellbeing, of which the narrator initially finds distasteful. The narrator’s turnaround in the final passage, deciding “it’s all the same” as the music finds calm, is therefore an understanding that the horse is a helplessly instinctive animal, perhaps beautiful in its oblivious “glad neighing”, and not to be blamed for its actions; the sacrifice is ultimately worthwhile for the narrator. It is an animal thing for Bess to not be able to stand her hunger; it is a feminine thing for the narrator to “hold [her] own”. The uncomfortable idea that the narrator can be happy in her own death is unravelled over the course of the rest of the album, culminating with regaining self-control in Does Not Suffice, which brings the album full circle with the same la'ing finale.

    Sorry if this is a bit incoherent!

    What do you think about this song? There are lots of lovely, ominous lines of ambiguity that seem out of place - "I do believe you were not lying" - and every image is endlessly interpretable.

  2. #2
    'If you existed, I'd divorce you.' spyk_'s Avatar
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    Jul 2010
    Wow Andrew, what a lovely and thoughtful description! This inspired me to listen to the song (on repeat) on my way back from work last night.

  3. #3
    condemned to wires and hammers ebby's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    This song crept up on me and somehow became one of my favourites on that stellar second disc of HOOM. The brass and the harmonies add so much colour to the music. It was one that seemed a bit wandering at first, but it creeps in and takes hold. Those melodies are more of an ear worm than you'd expect from the first listen.

  4. #4
    imagine a future and be in it emanate's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    What a fantastic post, Andrew! As much as I adore HOOM, this is a track I actually haven't spent much time discovering.

  5. #5
    Senior Member
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    Feb 2011
    One thing I adore about this song, and one thing that really contributes to its atmosphere, is how Joanna uses her lower register. It's so smooth and makes me want to hear her try vocal jazz or something.

    Also, this abridged version from Jimmy Fallon is gorgeous:

    also I think it's a shame that this song, Autumn and No Provenance get shafted a bit by fans they're definitely less accessible, but I feel like, perhaps, they're three of the most intelligently composed and written! Ribbon Bows I wholly understand though, lol.

  6. #6
    Get Out The Dark Adam's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    NYC/Kentucky/ Tennessee/Ohio
    Thank you for reminding me of this song! It was an immediate favorite of mine. I still have no clue as to what the song is about ( you've helped quite a bit...but did she/he steal Bess? Or another horse? What was the horse's crime in the narrators's eyes?)

    It's got me listening to the album again. Cant' believe it's already been three years since it came out. It still sounds as new as the day I first heard it and just as exciting. I reckon you could listen to this album a million times and still keep hearing/thinking something new with every listen. Such a masterpiece. Maybe we'll see something new from her this year?
    The Landslide Never Brought, Brought Me Down

  7. #7
    Senior Member
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    Feb 2011
    I think the idea is that the pair are collusive in crime - "I swore nonetheless, up and down, it was only me" - and that the stolen horse is not Bess.

    The "stolen horse" motif is really interesting actually, considering the nature of the horse in No Provenance; is she stealing the ghost horse back, thereby reclaiming her independence?

  8. #8
    I'm pretty sure he said "Killdren". Stone's Avatar
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    Jun 2010


    I was going to post this in the "Last movie you watched" thread, but it may be more appropriate here.

    Watched Breaking the Waves by Lars von Trier last night and instantly thought of this song when I learned the main character's name was Bess.

    If you haven't watched it, click the spoiler.

    So when Bess and Jan talk about their future together, but she refuses to let go of him and refuses to even consider it. He then comes up with the idea that, if she sleeps with another man, she will probably fall in love again and get over him. He talks her into thinking that it'll be like being with him, just with a different man.

    It’ll be you and me, Bess. Do it for me… If I die, it’ll be because love was over… Love is a mighty power, isn’t it?
    So of course the song seems to be mostly about Dick Turpin and his horse, Black Bess, but I think there is a connection with the movie as well.

    We picked our way
    down to the beach,
    watching the waves
    dragging out of our reach:
    tangling tails, like a sodden sheet;
    dangling entrails
    from the gut of the sea.

    Hoarding our meals (alfalfa and rolls);
    trying not to catch
    the cold eyes of the gulls
    I hope Mother Nature has not
    (Though, she doles out hurt
    like a puking bird.)

    We stayed for the winter.
    No-one told us
    about the laws of the land
    I hold my own.
    But you, with your hunger —
    you, on the other hand —
    make yourself known

    And when we were found,
    I know we both grieved
    My heart made the sound of
    snow falling from eaves.
    You and me, Bess,
    we were as thick as thieves.
    So I swore, nonetheless, up and down,
    it was only me.
    They took me away,
    and, after some time
    studying my case,
    must have made up their minds.
    By the time you realized I was dying,
    it must have been too late.
    I believe you were not lying.

    It is the day.
    I wake,
    with my ears cocked up like a gun
    (like every day, of course),
    yanked by my wrists
    to the sugar-front courtyard —
    now tell me, what have I done?
    It seems I have stolen a horse.

    I step to the gallows.

    Who do you think you are —
    arching your hooves like a crane,
    in the shallow gutter
    that lines the boulevards,
    crowded with folks
    who just stare as I hang?
    It's all the same.
    Kindness comes over me;
    what was your name?
    It makes no difference.
    I'm glad that you came.

    Forever, I'll listen to your glad neighing.

    I hadn't paid much attention to this song before, but damn. It's so damn gorgeous.

  9. #9
    Cosmic Flavor Yo Jupiter's Avatar
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    Mar 2014
    There's a SOTW thread for Joanna? Didn't even see it!

    Love this song, I think it was a grower at first. I don't know what to say really, it's just so beautiful and touching. Reading the original post, I have a feeling I'm not smart enough to comprehend her music all the way, especially since I discovered her when I was merely 16/17, but her music just moves me in a very special way. It's like that poetry you can't really understand, but find simply beautiful.
    Не може со обични зборови да ја домами необичноста, зашто и необичните си имаат секој свој пат и тешко се среќаваат.

  10. #10
    That post(Stone's) made me teary-eyed.I love,love Breaking the Waves.Could be my favorite movie like ever.
    Anyway i don't know the song though :P
    the draught was the very worst

  11. #11
    I'm pretty sure he said "Killdren". Stone's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    I actually got teary-eyed after the post, listening to the song with the movie in mind. You should definitely listen to it.

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