People love ranking things. As a person myself, I'm no exception. So I thought I'd have a little fun and share with you my favorite song.
Now, there are millions and millions of songs. And even though I've only heard a fraction of them, that's still tons and tons of tunes of all kinds! So how can I narrow it down to just one?
Well, I really can't. This is not quite literally my absolute favorite song. I think that choice is just too tough (and honestly kind of pointless) to make. But ever since I heard this one, it has had me under its spell, and what I can say is that I can't think of a song that I like better.
So what song is it? It's called 'Birches' by Bill Morrissey, from his 1993 album 'Night Train.'
You can hear my rendition of this timeless tune by clicking on the player above. Please watch and subscribe to my Youtube channel if you enjoy it!
What is it about this song that makes it 'work'? Why can I come back to it time and again and be so deeply moved by its characters and its images?
First, let me point out what this song does not have going for it: it has no chorus, not even a refrain. And it has no melodic or rhythmic hook to speak of. If you think about it, this makes it even more remarkable that the song succeeds.
I think this song has become an unforgettable classic (in my mind and many others') for a few reasons. First, it tells a story that everyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship can relate to. It is the story of being close to someone but still so far apart. The story of growing apart from someone you once felt indelibly connected to. The story of trying to make your relationship work as a team when you are so different from each other, down to your very souls. The story of two people trying to live a life together, but wanting drastically different things out of life. The story of bidding farewell to youth, and of the eternal struggle to hold on to the joys of living even in the face of those damned responsibilities that inevitably come calling and threaten to snuff all of that joy.
Second, the drama of this tale revolves around two characters who are instantly recognizable from our own lives, and maybe even in our own personalities. First, there is the unnamed 'young girl', newly married and still in the blush of youth. She clearly wants – both from Warren and from the fire – passion, romance, fun, thrills. And she is willing to sacrifice practicality – at least 'just for tonight' – to get a taste of these things. This is all the more poignant since we know she is just married. As all too many people have experienced, marriage can serve as a prelude to the death of romance, when the heart-pounding thrills of love and lust decay into a soulless series of ruts and routines.
Then there is Warren – a sort of old-before-his-time fuddy-duddy killjoy who represents the very essence of rut and routine. No passion, no romance, no thrills for this guy. He is 'reasonable' and practical. If there was ever a fun-loving boy in there, you wouldn't know it now, since he seems more than ready to embrace adulthood. He scoffs at his wife's suggestion: “Birches! On a winter's night! No, we'll fill the stove with oak.” He even turns the woman's own desires back on her: “You hate a cold house same as me. Am I right or not?” She's asking for affection, and he's giving her logical arguments! Not an ounce of tenderness does he show his wife, no recognition or validation of what she's asking for. In fact, you get the sense that this marriage, like the girl's fire, is destined for a brief life.
Third, this ancient oh-so-relatable drama is masterfully spun around a similarly primal metaphor: the hearth-fire. The fire stands for a few things in this story, I think: the young couple's romance, which, like all romances, flares and then fades; their marriage, which is a project they both (presumably) value but in different ways, each bringing different ideas to the table about how best to make it work; even Life in General, and how each character wants something fundamentally different from it.
In the end, this song is about the trade-offs we're all forced to make in life, and how we can grow apart because of the different ways we would make those trade-offs. The fire can burn brightly and briefly, or it can burn all night in a much less exciting way. The girl in the story chooses the first, while Warren chooses the latter. To me, the deep drama of this tale comes from knowing that these choices reflect who these people are in their deepest selves. For the moment, this is a dispute about what kind of wood to use in a fire. But what about over the next twenty, thirty, or even fifty years? This difference in attitudes toward life will surely crop up again and again, bringing pain and tragedy in its wake. That is what makes this song so profoundly sad to me.
Narratively, I love the shift that occurs in the song after Warren retires to bed. How fitting it is that Warren – old before his time and head full of well-organized thoughts about his big-boy plans for tomorrow - should disappear to bed leaving us with the girl by herself. And notice that this is no accident: She is determined to dance in front of a roaring fire, even if it means not being with her new husband. Heck, she even lies to him in order to make it happen! 'Oak', he told her. 'Oak', she said. But she knew full well that she would be bringing up birch logs. And it is quite telling, too, that Warren didn't recognize this. It shows us how little he knows (or cares) about his wife, about what she wants from life, and about how far she's willing to go to get it.