“Smoke” is one of the cleverest, wisest songs about the slow death of a relationship. Lots of people have assailed the thorny romantic topic of starting all over again, and the conclusion they usually come to is that it’s going to be tough, but both practicable and desirable. The heartbreaking thing about Fold’s song is that it manages to simultaneously convey both the narrator’s desperation and the impossibility of a happy outcome.
In “Smoke,” the central conceit is that the relationship is a book, and so its unhappy recent history, the narrator wants to believe, can be destroyed by burning it page by page, until “all the things we’ve written in it never really happened.”
“Here’s an evening dark with shame,” he sings. “Throw it on the fire!” the backing vocalists tell him. “Here’s the time I took the blame (Throw it on the fire!) Here’s the time we didn’t speak, it seemed, for years and years…”
Wiping the slate clean is the fantasy of anyone who has ever got into a mess with a partner, and the metaphor is witty enough and rich enough to seduce us into thinking, just for a moment, that in this case it might be possible, but the music here, a mournful waltz, tells a different story.
It doesn’t sound as if the narrator’s lover is terribly convinced either: “You keep saying the past’s not dead,” he tells her, “Well stop and smell the smoke.” But the smoke, of course, contains precisely the opposite meaning: it’s everywhere, choking them.
“You keep saying…we’re smoke,” he concludes sadly, and we can tell that he’s beginning to believe it, finally; the smell of smoke, it turns out, does not symbolize hope but its opposite: the relationship is doomed.
“Smoke” is, I think, lyrically perfect, clever and sad and neat; it’s also one of the very few songs that is thoughtful about the process of love, rather than the object or the subject. And it was a constant companion during the end (the long, drawn-out end) of my last serious relationship, and it made sense then, and it still makes sense now. You can’t ask much more of a song than that.
“Smoke” by Ben Folds Five from the album “Whatever and Ever Amen”
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