I went through several possible blog post ideas for this week, but the one I finally settled on came to me in a flash of inspiration after my AP Government test. (Okay, maybe not a flash of inspiration, more like a cascade of boredom. The essay questions did not take up the full 100 minutes allotted…) Anyway, this song was stuck in my head, and I came to ruminate on the lyrics, and how expertly written and deep they are… and well, here we are.
“Sometime Around Midnight” by Airborne Toxic Event is one of my favorite songs, and it has been for years. It’s so simple, so beautiful, and drags you into its emotion so effectively. This is due in part to its structure. The song has no chorus, and instead relies on verses that constantly build upon each other. The melody itself is pretty simple and repetitive, but the constant addition of new string instruments into the sound builds up the emotional intensity in tandem with the story told in the lyrics. I’m no expert in music, so that’s the best analysis I have in that particular area, but there is a lot to dissect in the lyrics, so that’s what I’m going to do today.
So let’s all put on our analysis caps and dive in!
“And it starts sometime around midnight
Or at least that’s when you lose yourself for a minute or two”
The beginning line of the song sets the scene. And yes, the scene is vague. A really important thing to remember about this song is that it’s incredibly general. You get the feeling that this song is not describing one particular person and situation, but rather hopes to draw the listener in by allowing them to substitute the vague descriptions with their own personal experiences.
For that reason, the exact time of the scene presented in this song is just “sometime around midnight.” It’s not an exact time or place, and that is continued in the second line with the vague subject of “you.” The song is presented as something that has happened to the listener personally, which may also explain why the descriptions are so vague, so as to apply to as many people as possible.
Finally, these first two lines introduce the idea of “losing oneself.” This is a motif that will come back several times throughout the song, but in this case it furthers the attempt of this song to put the listener in the shoes of the situation it describes. The time the song takes place relies on when the listener themselves imagine they most “lose themselves.”
“As you stand under the bar lights
And the band plays some song about forgetting yourself for a while”
Once more, we come back to this idea of losing oneself. These lines makes the subject of the song seem disconnected from the setting. They’re not doing anything, just standing there, apparently alone. All of the emotion they’re experiencing is not their own – it’s being supplied by the band playing, and even in that case the band is suggesting forgetting your emotions and troubles.
“And the piano’s this melancholy soundcheck to her smile
And that white dress she’s wearing you haven’t seen her for a while”
And here we are introduced to the conflict of the song, the subject’s ex-lover. I love the juxtaposition of the melancholy music and the ex-lover’s smile. It serves to further this idea that the subject of the song is disconnected with what is happening, and plays with the idea of mixed emotions. The subject is happy to see her, but is also filled with a rush of sadness. It also serves to set up the difference between the subject and the ex-lover. While they ruminate on the sad music, she is smiling and apparently happily moved on from the relationship.
Finally, the first image of the ex-lover cues the listener in on understanding that the story of this song is being presented in a stream-of-consciousness way. The speaker notices her white dress and then ruminates on the last time they saw her with no connection between these two ideas – we’re simply witnessing the thought process of someone who has just run into their ex-lover.
“But you know that she’s watching
She’s laughing, she’s turning, she’s holding her tonic like a crux”
That stream-of-consciousness perspective is important to remember when looking at these lines. The story is being presented in the unique, unfiltered perspective of the “you”, the subject, and as such the events presented are very biased. This explains the confusing way the ex-lover is portrayed here, simultaneously watching the subject of the song while also apparently enjoying her time at the bar in a carefree, happy way. The fact that it’s the subject that “knows” that she’s watching suggests some degree of projecting on the speaker’s part – they want to believe their ex has noticed them and is watching them, but it seems that the reality is she’s simply enjoying herself on a night out.
Once more, the inner thoughts of the subject and the objective reality of the situation is placed at odds.
“The room’s suddenly spinning, she walks up and asks how you are
So you can smell her perfume, you can see her lying naked in your arms”
And here the subject goes again, their inner thoughts conflicting with the reality of the situation. Nothing about the actions of the ex suggests any sort of intimacy in these lines – quite the contrary, in fact. She simply walks up to them and asks how they’re doing, an action which suggests distance between the two of them. She is no longer involved enough in the subject’s life to know how they’re doing.
And yet, and yet, the subject flashes back to memories of intimacy, of being incredibly close physically. It’s clear that this is no longer the reality of the situation, but the subject clearly cannot move on.
“And so there’s a change in your emotions
And all these memories come rushing like feral waves to your mind”
Remember that emotional distance we established early on in the song? Of “losing oneself”? Yeah, here’s where that all comes crashing down. That is the “change in emotions” described. Where the subject of the song could once spend their time at the bar in blissful denial of all of their problems, here their ex is, making their problems tangible, real. And this conflict is feral, wild and uncontrollable.
“Of the curl of your bodies like two perfect circles entwined
And you feel hopeless and homeless and lost in the haze of the wine”
The most important aspect of these two line is structure – not of the lines themselves, but rather the idea of structure within. The subject’s memories compare their intimate moments as two “perfect” circles – two exact, quantifiable shapes. Now, without their ex, the subject feels unstable. They have lost their structure, and in this exact moment it causes them to feel listless and lost. They’re shapeless where there once was form.
“Then she leaves with someone you don’t know
But she makes sure you saw her, she looks right at you and bolts”
Once more, it’s important to remember that we’re seeing this scene through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, imposing their own bias. The fact that the ex is leaving with someone the subject doesn’t know establishes that she’s moved on enough from their relationship to already have friends (or possibly lovers) the subject doesn’t even know. This is obviously not a positive thing for the subject, who seems to impose a degree of vindictiveness on their ex. It’s very likely the ex paid no mind to the subject of the song as she left the bar, but to the ex the very act of leaving without them is an insult, and they present it as such.
“As she walks out the door, your blood boiling, your stomach in ropes
Oh and your friends say ‘What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost'”
Remember how I mentioned before that the subject of the song seems alone in the bar? Here we have the first mention of any other person with them. I think this is important – it establishes a certain degree of selfishness in the subject that they didn’t even think to note their friends before now. The subject is too consumed with their own internal emotions to note anyone in the bar other than themselves and their ex. I also think it’s interesting how this line and the line where the ex asks the subject how they are are both never answered. It continues to emphasize this point that the subject is all alone in their thoughts, never responding to anyone else but themselves.
Also, I love the double meaning of “ghost” here. While, yes, it’s a common idiom to say those who look pale or frightened appear to have “seen a ghost”, in this case it’s almost literal. The subject has seen a ghost. A ghost of their past, someone visible but untouchable. There and gone, like a specter. Excellent symbolism.
“Then you walk under the streetlights
And you’re too drunk to notice that everyone’s staring at you”
Finally, the strings have reached the highest point of the crescendo that is this entire song. There’s a definite disconnect between this line and the line before it. As I mentioned before, this song is very stream-of-consciousness, so I think the lack of connection between the subject being in the bar with their friends and them being outside of the bar following their ex suggests a lack of thought between these two events. It’s pretty heavily established that the subject is drunk, and very little rational judgment was used in the decision to leave the bar and go after the ex.
“You just don’t care what you look like, the world is falling around you”
There’s an almost fatalistic lack of care in this last line, as well as a continuation of that selfishness we’ve seen so many times throughout this song. No longer is there any rational thought driving the subject, all they can focus on is their own inner sadness. They see this event as so catastrophic that the whole world is crumbling, even though, to an onlooker, they would appear to just be a sad drunk.
(Yup, that’s that dichotomy between reality and the inner thoughts of the subject.)
“You just have to see her
You just have to see her
You just have to see her
You just have to see her
You just have to see her
You know that she’ll break you in two”
These are the only repeated lines in the entire song, and they serve to further the point I was making earlier – that the subject is no longer employing any rational thought. The only motivation driving them at this point is their desire to see their ex again, and this is shown through the repetition of “You just have to see her.” What’s interesting, though, is the last line. It’s the final thought of the song, this contradictory statement. Considering that the lyrics of this song are the inner monologue of the subject, though, it makes sense. Even as their mind is consumed with the desire to follow their ex, there’s a tiny thought in the back of their mind that holds onto the reality that seeing the ex won’t actually do anything to heal the subject. In fact, it’ll hurt them more.
And with that, the song winds back down, returning to the simple instrumentation of the beginning. Whether or not the subject catches up with their ex is left up to listeners to decide on their own, but ultimately I feel it’s not important. We know from the last line that it won’t lead to anything but more heartbreak.
Anyway, thank you for indulging me in a bit of lyrical analysis. I hope to do this sort of thing again in the future… it’s my favorite part of listening to music.