Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #87. “When I Run in the Dark…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 29, 2009

If you pay enough attention to the list here, you’ll notice that it definitely skews towards the beginning of the decade, with songs from the last year or two barely getting any due at all. The reasons for this are unfair, but simple. In my opinion, the way one feels about a pop song is a perception defined almost entirely by four times that you hear it–the first time, the tenth time, the (approximately) one hundredth time, and then the first time again, after not having heard it for a year. The first time is obviously the most important, usually (though not always) telling you enough about a song to at least determine whether or not you like it. The tenth time is key because by that point the song should no longer be packing surprises, and you should be able to judge it with relative thoroughness. The ~100th time is crucial because by that point the song has reached such a complete point of saturation that it will likely no longer move you emotionally in any particular way, thus allowing you to view it with complete objectivity, like a wine taster who spits out his drink so as not to allow the alcohol to cloud his judgement. But the first time after more than a year might be my personal favorite, blending the history of the 100th listen with the fully-formed feelings of the tenth and the freshness of the first. And since we can’t have had that experience yet with songs from so recently, it’s hard to be feel sure enough about them to include them here.

Of course, every so often–and it’s rarer than you might think–you just know. You hear a song and you know from that first listen that the song is something special, something that’s going to stay with you regardless of how many times you hear it. By most of my previously stated standards, “Daniel” shouldn’t be on this list–too new, not popular enough, not obviously significant or influential to the rest of the decade’s pop music. But I knew from the first time I heard it, and the tenth, for that matter, that this was one of the great songs of the decade, and I’m confident enough in being borne out on that that I’ll forgo the ~100th listen and first listen in over a year as qualifications here. Personally, I’d be overjoyed if there’s another song that comes out this year that I have greater faith in.

It was obvious from “What’s a Girl to Do?, the Bat for Lashes (nee Natasha Khan) breakout single from 2006, that the girl was really good. The song was steeped in pop history–hard to get much more obvious than starting with the “Be My Baby” drum beat, of course–but it was also distinctly original, a stunning, shivering ballad with widescreen production and a superbly creepy video. Even the subject matter felt fresh, a song about emotional frigidness that, unlike Lily Allen or any of her more obnoxious contemporaries, actually seemed to be bemoaning the state rather than bragging about it, making the song far more striking. It wasn’t quite a classic, per se–the actual tune wasn’t a killer, and the song never really built much past the chorus–but it showed about as much potential as any other new artist from that year, and seemed to promise that she’d get there soon enough.

“Daniel” was exactly what I was hoping for. It maintained everything that I liked about “What’s a Girl to Do?”–the spooky atmosphere, the raw emotion, the compelling personality–but added absolutely perfect songcraft (and an 80s-ish beat!) to the mix as well. In relative contrast to her earlier semi-hit, “Daniel” was also unabashedly romantic, a paean to the fragile mysteries of young love which, if you believe Khan’s explanations (as well as her single cover), was actually more inspired by Daniel LaRusso, Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid, than any actual figure in her past. In a way, though, that inspiration makes the song richer than if, like some people, Khan had simply based the song on a specific, similarly-named boy of her youth–this way, it’s far dreamier and more idealized, as all recollections of teenage passion should be.

And from the song’s opening lines, sighed by Khan in a loud whisper–“Daniel / When I first saw you / I knew that you had / a flame in your heart”–the song is both frustratingly shadowy and sensationally vivid, confusing and fascinating, just like…well, you get the idea. Rather than relate simple tales of dalliances, Khan sticks mostly to simple, evocative phrases, split almost evenly between the atmospheric (“Under our blue skies / marbe movie skies,” “The smell of cinders and rain,” “Just catch in the eye of the storm”) and the physical (“With my arms around your neck,” “I found a home in your eyes”) to build a staggeringly emotionally loaded framework for the song. But as great as the verses are, they’d be nothing without an amazing chorus to anchor them, and “Daniel” has certainly has that–an almost devestatingly beautiful melody for the best synthesis of the song’s two types of lyrics: “When I run in the dark / to a place that’s vast / under a sheet of rain in my heart / I dream of home.” It’s the song encapsulated, and with the haunting (yeah, yeah, I had to say that word at least once) echo of “Dan-iel” ringing in the background after each line, it’s positively unforgettable.

And she had the song to match this time, as well. To have the synth-drum beat was an absolutely brilliant move, simultaneously ensuring the song’s catchiness and preventing it from ever sounding too draggy or dippy, but the entire thing’s a marvel–the violin hook that provides the bridge in between chorus and verse, the subtle bass drum rolls at various points of the song, the guitar reverberations throughout, they all add up to a gorgeous bed for Khan’s hazy, infinitely-tracked cries to lie their head on. The most commonly used points of reference (and justifiably so) for the song were The Cure’s “A Forest,” which Khan was so close to ripping off directly with the song’s theme and melody that she covered the song on the single’s b-side to be on the safe side, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” the prototypical mysterious, unnerving gypsy woman ballad, from which Khan even borrowed the “singing the titular name on its own without context” lyrical device. But I’ll throw a less trendy third one in there–Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession,” with which “Daniel” not only shares a swirling richness of production but a lyrical conceit and vocal performance so personal and intimate that it borders on the disturbing (and indeed, in the case of “Possession,” the song was even written from the perspective of a real-life stalker of McLachlan’s).

It’s all a very proud lineage, and Bat for Lashes fits it to a T. It doesn’t hurt that Khan herself, despite nearing the age of 30, still kind of had the look of a lost teenager to her in the video, with her droopy hair, baggy clothes, and (obviously painted on) perpetual tears, really made you want to save her from the demons plaguing her (literally, in the video–though why Khan keeps insisting on traveling on these empty roads at unnaturally nocturnal hours is, of course, anyone’s guess) and make her feel at home again. I hoped she could maintain the feeling of “Daniel” throughout full-length effort Two Suns, but though she came close at other points, “Daniel” is clearly her career standout, and one that will take great effort and fortune to match in future efforts. Still, you’d be foolish not to be monitoring her career very, very closely in the decade to come–and hey, with a couple hundred listens down, who’s to say how high her future songs could rank on our list of the 2010s?

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