There is a lot going on in Vitalogy but one of the main themes playing itself out is the desire for purity in the face of corruption—a desire for the salvation of music, and the salvation of self in a world where both are threatened, perverted, distorted (I’ve long felt Red Mosquito needs to be on Vitalogy, as it is addressing these same themes).
RM poster SLH has made the argument that Not For You should be seen as working itself out over time, rather than capturing a particular moment—and her interpretation makes a great deal of sense segueing into Tremor Christ. It picks up in the aftermath of a metaphorical shipwreck and while the song is exhausted you can cut yourself on its jagged sounds and sharp vocals. Musically Tremor Christ does a wonderful job evoking the stormy feel of the song. The subject had succumbed to the superficial ease of temptation, the promise of reward without cost. Slight surrenders of principle, seemingly innocuous decisions quickly spiral out of control. The smallest oceans still get big big waves. It turns out that there was a steep price after all, demanding payment in terms of lost love, lost innocence, lost purity. Both the art and the artist suffer for the easy choices, for the refusal to see the hidden price of playing the game instead of choosing to move Sisyphus’s rock. We’re left with an exhausted artist, passion bleeding itself dry, and the emancipatory promise of the music drowning in the wake left by the industry.
The second verse, chronologically, comes before the first one—it’s a flashback of sorts, what happened to the subject that lead to him washed up on the shore. The Devil is seductive, and it is rare for the angels to reach an artist before they’ve accepted his bargain, to let him know exactly what is at stake. We can hope for angels but if we’re honest with ourselves we know it is going we’re going to have to learn to fight the devils (this theme returns in Corduroy and Satan’s Bed).
While the subject is wounded, he isn’t dead yet. The second half of the song is a fighting creed, a declaration to resist, to forgo temptation and endure hardship, to do what is necessary to regain control over his soul, the only prize the devil ever seeks. And the song ends with the eerily calm determination to turn the boat back to the water, enter the waves and prepare to fight, with nothing on his side but faith in love (love of music, love as meaningful attachment and solidarity, love as purity), and the knowledge that the struggle itself has meanings. The liner notes of Not For You intimate that Eddie has at least a passing familiarity with Albert Camus, and this really starts to play itself out in the moments of defiance on Vitalogy (here, Whipping, and Corduroy). There is never any guarantee, or even expectation of victory, but it is the fight that preserves our humanity. There is no promise that he’ll find what he is looking for, and in fact he may be too far gone to be redeemed, but he is willing to accept responsibility for the mistakes made, and he is willing to keep searching for the possibility of a wavering, uncertain salvation (tremor Christ). Since that is all we can have, it will have to be enough.
OTHER SONGS IN THIS SERIES
OTHER GUIDED TOUR SERIES: