In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: songs that tell a story.
What sounds like a love song is interrupted with a knock on the door. It comes just after the singer poses a question to his love: “I asked my Louise would she leave and so cripple me?” As if in answer, a man barges in, and the narrator’s fear becomes reality in the form of razor-blade-wielding dude charging toward him. Iron & Wine and Calexico’s “A History Of Lovers” seems like a love song at first glance, but under the surface of the short and sparse song (it’s barely three minutes and contains five verses) is a creepy little story of a couple in a codependent relationship that’s riddled with insecurity. Reading between the lines, Louise and her new lover plotted to kill the narrator/current boyfriend, but when the first blood is spilled, Louise comes to his rescue. The narrator describes his relationship with Louise in troubling terms: “Still I can hear myself / Speak as if no one else / Ever could offer the same,” and the chorus adds an acidic testimony: “Coddle some men, they’ll remember you bitterly / Fuck them, they’ll come back for more.” With Sam Beam’s gently rolling melody and earnest voice, the upbeat-sounding song belies a bitter sentiment and an even bleaker story.
Calexico adds a lot of lushness and noise to Iron & Wine’s usual hushed volume; the end of the song absolutely roars compared to what Beam was putting out in 2005 on his own. But like much of Beam’s music, there’s a depth to this song that takes some unraveling to figure out, with enough of the information up to interpretation as to make for a compelling mystery. After the narrator is presumably swiped by the new man’s razor blade, Louise comes to his aid and the new lover ends up dead. It’s unclear if she kills the new man or the narrator does, but either way, he takes the fall: “I hope that she’s happy I’m blamed for the death / Of the man she found better than me.” The “better than me” complicates the narrative, positing it not as a story of a lowlife throwing his weight around, but a story of a man who, despite trying to kill the narrator, is better than him. Why? What has the narrator done? That last line is also followed by a triumphant whooping sound, leading into more celebratory noise. It’s all very mysterious, but it seems like “A History Of Lovers” is hiding a dark message in plain sight.