Monday, December 31, 2012

Patricia Barber -- "The New Year Eve's Song" (2008)

Seasons change.  
Will he?

Most of the posts on this blog use a song as an excuse for me to talk about myself. This will be something completely different.

This post originally appeared exactly three years ago -- at 11:59 pm on New Year's Eve, 2009.  I repost it every year because I have a very high regard for the featured song, Patricia Barber's "The New Year's Eve Song."

This year I'm dedicating this post to a couple of old friends of mine who are newlyweds -- I'll call them "M" and "D."  I don't think it's the first New Year's Eve they've spent together, but it's the first one they've spent as husband and wife.

M and D met in the fall of 1974, when M and I were law students and D was a freshman in college.  Why didn't they get married until 38 years had passed?  That's a long and complicated story, which you can read about by clicking on this link.

The point is that the story had a happy ending.  That happy ending was delayed for a very long time.  But that delay did not defeat M and D.  When the time for them to be together finally arrived, they had enough optimism and courage and faith in one another to seize the opportunity.

There's a Latin saying that is usually attributed to Cicero: Dum spiro spero.  That means "While I breathe, I hope."

I'm still breathing.  And so are you.  Let's both go do something about that, shall we?

M and D, happy New Year's Eve to you both.  Let me tell you about the perfect song to listen to as the clock counts down the last few moments of 2012.

Patricia Barber is a Chicago-based jazz singer and pianist whose repertoire combines original compositions (like "The New Year's Eve Song"), piano-bar standards ("Bye Bye Blackbird," "My Funny Valentine"), and classic-rock and pop ("Light My Fire," "The Beat Goes On"). You can read more about Patricia Barber on her own website, on Wikipedia (which has links to some reviews and interviews) or elsewhere.

This song (from a Barber CD titled The Cole Porter Mix) begins on a New Year's Eve and ends on the following New Year's Eve. (Here's a link to the sheet music so you can follow the words and the music.)  This use of New Year's Eve not only gives the song a tidy formal structure but also takes advantage of the holiday's symbolic significance.

New Year's is the time when we focus on our futures.  We usually resolve to make changes for the better, and we usually fail to do so. But it's also the day when we say goodbye to another year -- a year that we may look back on as being happy, or sad, or not much of anything at all (which makes it sad, I suppose), but which always represents the passage of a significant chunk of our all-too-limited time on earth. (You can waste a day or even a week and not really feel that bad. To waste a whole year is a different thing altogether.) 

As the song begins, a man and a woman have said good-bye to their New Year's Eve party guests. The first lines ask one question, and the following lines pose a second question -- the answers to both of which seem fairly obvious:

Will he 
kiss her on New Year's Eve, 
after the last guests leave, 
then kiss her again? Will he
peek in the mirror while she,
knowing he's watching her, tease,
stripping the gown with ease?

(By the way, I don't know if Barber would break the song into lines the same way I have, or whether my punctuation reflects her intent -- what I've done is based solely on my personal interpretation of her performance, but there are usually alternatives that seem almost as convincing.)

Barber doesn't waste any time here, but jumps right into the song -- there's no instrumental introduction. The first thing you hear is the unaccompanied word "will" -- the music begins when she sings "he," which is held for for a full four beats. So there the listener sits, wondering to himself or herself, "Will he what?"

The first thing I asked myself after hearing the first few lines is how well does this couple know each other? Is it their first night together, or have they been married for years? Barber's description of the scene in the bedroom -- him peeking in the mirror to watch her undress, her teasing him a little as she strips -- implies to me that they have not known each other for very long.

I suppose it's possible that this is their first night together, but that seems doubtful because we're told they have known each other long enough to have fallen deeply in love -- the first stanza ends with "So in love with her is he," while the next verse ends with "So in love with him is she." 

So far, so good -- that New Year's Eve encounter was obviously pretty hot, and each one is "so in love" with the other. Sounds like things are going great, right?

Patricia Barber
Not so fast. The next part of the song is very different. The music changes, for one thing. In the first two stanzas, the last word of each line is held for the length of a whole note -- which essentially inserts a pause at the end of each line, and makes the listener a little anxious to know what comes next.

The lines of first two verses all ended with long "e" words -- "leaves," "he," "she," "tease," "ease," "sweet," "free," "dreams," "sleep," etc. -- held for the length of a whole note. But suddenly the long "e" words disappear, and the line-ending whole-notes disappear -- Barber stops singing the lines and instead delivers them more like an operatic recitative.

These lines ask a question as well, but the answer to this question isn't at all clear:

Will it be an affair to last through spring?
Will it be summer love to embrace warm afternoons
that quicken and chill? Red harvest moons?
The thrill a first snowfall can bring?

A book I recently read (Missing Joseph, by Elizabeth George) features two characters who have known each other a long time, but have only recently become lovers. The man wants to marry the woman, but she is hesitant because she is fearful that someday they will no longer feel the same way about one another, which would break her heart.

He acknowledges that he is asking her to take a leap into the void, and that there is no guarantee that the future will turn out well for them. "We can't predict the future," he tells her. "We can only use the present to guide us hopefully in its direction."

That's the problem the two people in Barber's song are facing -- how can they give themselves over wholeheartedly to each other, knowing that things could change in the future? After all, "seasons change -- will he"? (Or will she?)

The last verse of the song takes place a year later. Once again the couple is hosting a New Year's Eve party, and once again Barber asks the question she asked at the beginning of the song:

Seasons change. Will he,
after the last guests leave,
still kiss her again?

The last lines of the song seem to deliver a happy ending:

We each with the other will be
So in love next New Year's Eve

I would describe Barber's usual singing style as restrained -- she's not showy, and not a warm-and-fuzzy type -- but she allows more emotion to show through in these final lines, ending the song on an optimistic note. It's as if she wants to believe that this is a love that will stand the test of time.

I like happy endings as much as the next guy, and I'd like to think that the couple here is over the hump for good. But let's not get all giddy. After all, they've only made it to their one-year anniversary. One swallow doesn't make a summer, and one year doesn't make a lifetime. Who knows if these two will still be together when the next New Year's Eve rolls around, or the one after that?

As the character in the Elizabeth George book says, we can't predict the future -- we can only use the present to guide us hopefully in the future's direction.

Barber's use of questions is not the only aspect of this song's structure that keeps the listener feeling a little off-balance. For example, Barber inverts the usual word order in a number of places, placing the subject at the end rather than the beginning of a sentence in order to position the long "e" words at the end of the lines. Instead of the expected "She is bare as the New Year," Barber writes "Bare as the New Year [is] she." And instead of "He is so in love with her," she writes "So in love with her is he."

Patricia at the piano
As noted, the final word of most lines is a whole note long, which inserts a long pause between the lines and creates more tension and anxiety in the listener's mind. That effect is further enhanced by Barber's use of "enjambment" -- a poetic technique that is defined as "the breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line of [poetry] . . . . It is to be contrasted with end-stopping, where each lingistic unit corresponds with a single line . . . The term is directly borrowed from the French enjambement, meaning 'straddling' or 'bestriding.'" The main effect of enjambment is to "make the reader feel uncomfortable," and that is certainly true of this song

The whole-note words that end each line usually don't end the "syntactic unit" -- Barber pauses in midstream, and the listener has to wait a few beats for her to complete her thought (which usually turns out to be a question). 

Let's use the first stanza to illustrate all this:

Will he
kiss her on New Year's Eve, 
after the last guests leave, 
then kiss her again? Will he
peek in the mirror while she,
knowing he's watching her, tease,
stripping the gown with ease?

As noted above, the first "he" is held for a full measure -- the listener has to wait a long time to find out "Will he what?" "Eve" is held for four beats, as is "leave." There is a similar pause after the second "will he," and the following "she" is also held. (In other words, it takes four beats for Barber to sing "peek in the mirror while" and then she holds "she" for the same four beats.)

Barber does one other thing to keep the listener unsure of himself or herself -- just as the couple in the song feel unsure about their future together. Let's go back to the line quoted at the beginning of this post: 

Seasons change. Will he?

As elsewhere, the last word of the line -- "he" -- is held for four beats, which would ordinarily signal us that the thought is complete. (It's like inserting a period.) So when you first hear the song, you assume that the singer is asking if the man's feelings will change over time much as the seasons change as the year goes by.

But then it becomes apparent that "will he" is also the beginning of a sentence that continues on the next line:

Seasons change. Will he, 
after the last guests leave . . . kiss her again?

Because this is a song performed one word at a time rather than a poem written on a page, Barber can easily make "will he" do double duty -- it completes one question, but at the same time initiates a second question. Barber has created the poetic equivalent of New Year's Eve -- each "will he" and "will she" looks backward to the previous thought and forward to the next thought.

I've chosen to emphasize Barber's poetic talents. But the quietly intense music and her restrained singing style -- with the touch of optimism at the very end -- is a very good match for the words she has written. 

I'm familiar with a few other songs of Barber's, and all of them are intelligent and a bit of a challenge for the listener. As far as I'm concerned, none of them have the emotional impact to "The New Year's Eve Song." Less is more here -- the story she tells and the words she uses to tell it are relatively simple and straightforward, but the overall effect is quite remarkable.

If I could write one song as good as this one, I think that would be enough -- I'd be satisfied that I had left something really worthwhile behind.

In honor of Patricia Barber and this wonderful song, I'm posting this in the hour before midnight on December 31. The guests haven't yet left, so he hasn't kissed her yet -- but very soon, all that will happen.

(After I posted this, I e-mailed a copy to Patricia Barber. She was kind enough to say some very nice things about it, and posted a link to it on her website.)

Here's a link to an MP3 of "The New Year Eve's Song" from Barber's website.

Click below if you'd like to buy "The New Year's Eve Song" on

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