Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Nothingman


Nothingman can be seen as something of an outlier song on Vitalogy. On the surface it appears to be a simple love song, albeit a beautiful one. It is gentle, fragile, with a bittersweet melody and a wistful, regretful vocal performance. Nothingman sounds like a memory, from the opening sounds of a guitar coming into focus to the final goodbye. And it works well as a love song—the story of a man who took for granted a powerful, dynamic woman, stifling her until she finally had to emancipate herself from him. And is so often the case, he did not understand what he actually had until it was gone and it was too late to bring her back. And now he’s left with nothing but the memories of what could have been.

But Nothingman, could also be read another way—the woman as a stand in for art, music, purity, or any gift we have that we abuse and take for granted. And if that’s the case Nothingman fits perfectly into the general themes and conceptual arcs of Vitalogy. And given the fact that Nothingman was written during these sessions, when Eddie was clearly grappling with these issues, this seems plausible. The tone of the song, the sense of regret and loss, need not change under this interpretation. In fact the song is still trying to accomplish the same thing—it is only the object that is different.

So under this read Nothingman picks up right after Tremor Christ—in some ways it reflects the failure of Tremor Christ—the ship was turned around too late for redemption. And now the passion that the subject had, for art, for music, for life, has been permanently tainted by the commodification and objectification of art and artist. The music is lost to him, existing mostly as mockery rather than a source of hope, escape, and transcendence. He is no longer able to call on it, and it refuses to take him anywhere. He no longer deserves the gifts, and the muse has moved on to someone who will (hopefully) not make the same mistakes. There is clearly a sense of guilt animating Nothingman, but this isn’t surprising. Eddie has always (and especially in this period) struggled with a sense of his own worth—wondering why he received the attention, the money, and the fame when there were so many other artists (in his opinion) far more deserving than him.

So where does this leave the subject? Under this interpretation the outro lines make a great deal more sense, especially read as foreshadowing immortality. There is the reference to the sun, to fame, celebrity, inauthenticity, and the false light that it provides under which nothing can really grow. He’s stuck there, blinded and trapped while slowly burning away into nothingness, and we’re left only with the memory of what could have been, and a warning not to make the same mistakes.