Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Milk Diaries: Denial

It was a cover Ace of Base never wanted to record, but Don't Turn Around exists as a visceral feature of their 1993 debut, The Sign (or Happy Nation, in the US). Originally recorded by Aswad in 1988, I must have listened to their synthy re-interpretation hundreds, if thousands of times since I bought it as my first CD. However, it was very only recently that it struck me why Don't Turn Around was such a potent song: its lyrics contain ineffectual statements which elude to an emotional recovery that is unlikely to take place anytime soon.

The opening line, delivered in strained spoken word says it all: "I will survive without you..." There is a synthesized rip, the kind of sound which would plausibly represent the sound of a heart being torn apart. The genius of the song does not simply exist in its instrumentation, the reggae riddim and B minor key signature, I believe it is in the lyrical treatment of vagueness and specificity, there is something heartbreaking in its depiction of both hope and denial.

Everything in the verses suggest that emotional investment is minimal: she will not campaign for reconsideration ("If you wanna leave, I won't beg you to stay"). She goes on to claim indifference about the dismantled relationship ("I won't miss your arms around me, holding me tight"). The future tense provides a clue that true recovery will take place in time ("And if you ever think about me, just know that I'll be alright"). The truth of her heartbreak is only ever revealed in the chorus:

"Don't turn around, cause you're gonna see my heart breaking,
Don't turn around, cause you're gonna see me cry,
Just walk away, it's tearing me apart that you're leaving,
I'm letting you go, but I won't let you know."

It is a devastating sentiment and you wonder whether she really does want him to turn around, to look back and acknowledge the breadth of her personal investment. It paints the portrait of a girl who attempts to regain a sense of power and composure at a time when words hold no persuasive currency. The contrast and contradiction leads us to consider whether the declaration in the chorus is designed to be an emotionally manipulative tactic or simply an explanation: please ignore the cold indifference, it is borne of grief.

Sentimentally speaking, Don't Turn Around could be aligned with Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. Both songs contain a succession of bold assurances of strength and goals of independence but the difference is that the confidence of I Will Survive suggests that recovery is inevitable. You don't really get that sense in Don't Turn Around, particularly since the Ace of Base version features a unique spoken word bridge from the estranged partner, declaring that pride prevents him from ever looking back.

The song remains preserved and unresolved, existing somewhere between truth and fiction forever and ever. I think that's why I need to pay heed to it. It's a perfect piece of songwriting.

No comments: