Yesterday I wrote about the importance of listening to full albums and drew your attention to Ben Rector’s “Thank God I Miss You.” I didn’t have to dig quite as deeply to find today’s track but it is probably one that you could overlook it you aren’t paying attention. The reason that I almost missed “I’ll Follow You” is because I have a tendency to take a mental break during the first acoustic track on an album. For whatever reason, I tend to zero in on the songs with driving beats and crisp, defined arrangements on my first time through an album. As a result, my ears, brain and ‘air-drumming’ muscles often take a break on the first down-tempo track. “I’ll Follow You” is the sixth cut off of Jon McLaughlin’s piano driven offering “Promising Promises” and the first track without a drum part. The song cut through my usual early-album attention deficit and snapped me right into deep-listening mode.
I think the reason why the song grabbed my attention so quickly is because of the simplicity of the arrangement. In an era where most of us expect densely layered recordings, complete with texture creating electronic pads, the presence of a deliberately uncluttered album like “Promising Promises” is decidedly refreshing. Throughout the album, McLaughlin demonstrates a willingness to allow a few key instrumental sounds to take centre stage on each track. To me this says that McLaughlin trusts his songwriting to carry each track and the songs to speak for themselves (if you buy the deluxe version of the album you will find a few tracks with just McLaughlin and his piano).
“I’ll Follow You” is a perfect example of McLaughlin’s confidence. The song opens with the ambient room sounds–a creaking piano bench, the faint sounds of the hammers hitting the strings on the piano, a faint whisper of human activity in the background–and slowly builds into an opening piano part. In the first verse and chorus, McLaughlin’s haunting voice joins piano and room ambience to create a simple, but dramatic atmosphere. In the interlude between the first chorus and the second verse, a string part joins the song and stitches the the sonic fabric together. The song rests on McLaughlin’s ability to convey incredible emotion through his piano playing, vocal phrasing and the incredible depth of the string chorus. There is no hint of overproduction, no tricks, no gimmicks and certainly nothing contrived about the delivery of the song. Something about the fluidity of the string part and the rolling of the piano captivates me and indicates that the song is to be taken seriously.
Lyrically McLaughlin focuses on one of the simplest complexities of life. He attempts to convey the absolute desire to stay by those that we love for as long as we are able. He talks about the seemingly incomprehensible power of a single individual to help us find our way through the darkest of times and commits deeply to staying with that person for all of time. The song is one of devotion, not just to a person, but to the idea of forever.
The song makes me consider the meaning of forever. We aren’t all blessed with the opportunity to tell someone that we want to be with them forever or admit that our lives seem empty without their presence. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to believe that forever has already begun can understand the heartache associated with such a feeling. The world becomes large and small all at once and time seems to grow long and short. We revel in the thrill of having a lifetime to spend with our love, but cower in fear of the end of time. We dream of the possibilities of love but fear the constraints of loving. How would we continue without the one that we hope will be with us forever? Suddenly the suffering of those who have lost or are losing loved ones comes into focus and we begin to fear a day when our own love must grow cold.
“I’ll Follow You” is the ultimate in ‘until death do us part’ songs. But, to the casual listener it might sound like McLaughlin is telling us to deny the inevitable.
In the chorus he sings:
As long as you’re around I’ll follow you
Heart is never gonna break
As long as you’re around I’ll follow you
And I will give whatever this love takes
Taken on its own, the chorus might make us think that McLaughlin is merely reminding us to live our lives to the fullest. However, a closer reading of the rest of the song makes me believe that he is trying to tell us something much more profound. To me, “I’ll Follow You” is about following our loved ones in life and in death. Loving someone in life can be hard, but it is much easier than figuring out how to be with someone when they are gone. McLaughlin reminds us that it is possible to stay with the ones that we love even when they leave us. Those who go before us have the ability to bring light to the lives of the living and to inspire us to live in their memory.
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a love so strong that the world itself seemed unable to escape it. What I mean is that I’ve seen forever when driving by car accidents, sitting in movies, playing with children and in the choices that I’ve made. I haven’t done the best job of holding onto forever or giving “whatever this love takes” but all I can do is continue to leave space for forever in my life and hope that one day it will come back to me. Giving up on forever is something that very few of us recover from, but McLaughlin reminds those of us who fear that they have done so not to give up. He doesn’t quite absolve us of responsibility but he reminds us that at the end of the day we are all just people who often require patience:
So be patient baby
Hold me close
I hope you understand
You’re a beautiful woman
And I’m just a man
If there’s one thing to take from “I’ll Follow You” it’s that we should always cherish the forever people and moments in our lives. We should never take them for granted or ever give up on them. We should be willing to leave space in our lives for complete devotion to people, ideas and dreams because without the ability to surrender ourselves we won’t ever find forever. And, when we find forever make sure to be willing to follow it into the darkest places, through the darkest times and until you grow old. You don’t always get a second chance at forever so it’s worth making the best of your first shot.