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Oldies But Goldies: Just In Case You Thought We Never Said A Kind Word About M. Ward, We Said One In 2009


The more I listen to M. Ward’s “One Life Away’ the more obsessed I become with it. Robert Nevin thought it was about life after death and sneered at the concept. I am not so sure and I’ll get to the reasons why in a minute.

First here is the lyric:
to all the people underground
listening to the sound of the living people
walking up and down the graves
well one of them is mine
i visited my fraulein
she’s only one step away

to all the people underground
listening to the sound of the living people
breathing the air today
well one of them is mine
i visited my fraulein
she’s only one breath away

to all the people underground
listening to the sound of the living people
living their lives away
well one of them is mine
i visited my fraulein
she’s only one life away

The song is jaunty easy going, swinging, there is an aliveness to it and it is old fashioned: an acoustic guitar and maybe a ukulele) strummed, zero drums, and a chick back up singer shadowing him. It is less than two minutes in length. Somebody on mentioned how the sound is muffled, as though it is being heard from a great distance, as though it is being heard by the people in their graves. What a leap of imagination, he turns us into the dead!!
So lookee: Matt is in a graveyard and he is explaining to the dead why he is, he is visiting his love who died before him. However, the thanatological implications are huge. This is the best song I’ve heard about death, not death as spiritial rebirth, but death as biological function since Richard Thompson’s “Wall Of Death”.

On “Wall Of Death” (the final song on Richard and Linda’s epic death of a marriage Shoot Out The Lights), the singer is at a fairground “You’re going nowhere when you ride on a carousel” he warns, “I may be strong but what’s the sense in rining a bell?” The ride of choice is the wall of death, “the closest to being free…”, “the nearest to being alive…” Thompson’s conclusion, shared by many a thrillseeker, is only when close to the possibility of death, are your sense at their strongest.
Ward is also looking towards death -to stay that somebody is one life away is not to say that they will meet in their next life. It is more like a timing mechanism, away as a synonym for “passed on”. The Fraulein is one life, one step, one breath away simply because she died.

But what about the people in their graves listening to the living. In the Islamic religion it is believed that the souls stay in the graves until judgement day and if you go to the graves the souls can hear you (unless you die in the cause of God in which case you go straight to heaven). I am not sure this is what Matt is suggesting here. It hits me as a song almost distilled in the decayed flesh and bones as it merges the literal with the ethemeral (mixing metaphors but live with it). What I mean is, like Thompson, the study of death on “One Life Away” is of a real transmogrification from being animated to being inanimate. It is the distinction between belief (that when we die we go somewhere better) and absolute truth (we are those bodies rotting underground).

I mentioned the song is vaudevillian but it isn’t timeless. It sounds like the early twenties and in the parts of the song I place my imagination simply the use of Fraulein suggests the end of the Great War, Armistist Day -something like that. It’s a great song, it’s the sort of song novelist could write works of fiction around

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