Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Betterman & Aye Davanita


We know that Betterman was written long before the Vitalogy sessions, and presumably long before he had his concerns about art, commodification, and fame that dominate the album. So if there is one song that isn’t directly related to the larger overall arc this is clearly it. Having said that, there are still some connections that can be drawn, some likely intentional (set up by the artwork in the cd booklet) and some simply reflections of universal themes and a general point of view that consistently show up in Eddie’s writing

Satan’s Bed ends with the declaration ‘already in love’ and the song is about the importance of a purer, authentic, healthier kind of love that keeps us grounded. It is significant then that the Vitalogy booklet transitions from Satan’s Bed into Betterman with its passages on love and marriage. The booklet advises us to approach any kind of binding relationship carefully, to ensure that we’re doing it for the right reasons, and not out of a misguided sense of lust, obligation, or ignorance. It warns us not to throw away something sacred and powerful by making poor choices that leave us trapped in an enervating, destructive relationship. The connection to Betterman is obvious, as it is a song about spousal abuse and destructive relationships, about trapping yourself and not knowing how to free yourself from a bad situation. At the same time it’s a tender song, recognizing that underneath all this is a desperate desire to love and to be loved, an all too human need for it that forces us to do things we wouldn’t normally do, accept what we’d rather not accept, both the realization that without it we’ll never fully be complete and the fear that if we don’t settle right now we may never have it. That’s why the dominant emotion in the song isn’t judgment, but empathy. What’s tragic about the woman’s situation is that most of us would surrender to our fears and make the same mistakes she did, the same errors that trap us, and like her lack the strength to get out.

And so while Betterman wasn’t written for Vitalogy, it fits in a way. It tries to explain why people surrender and give into the forces that threaten to destroy them, out of a combination of fear and naiveté, and the way in which once the initial surrender is made, it is so difficult to hold onto who you are, what you value, your authenticity and the purity of your live. Once trapped, it is so much easier to stop moving the rock and learn to rationalize the position that you’re in. 


I’m not a big fan of the instrumental, personally, and when I put together my Vitalogy as a collection of songs that I want to listen this one never mak the cut. And even when considering it as a piece of art I’m not really sure exactly what to make of it. The music is casual and jaunty—possibly meant as a breather sandwiched as it is between two emotionally intense songs, lacking words so you don’t need to process anything—like those little sorbets you sometimes get between courses at the kind of restaurant that’s fancier than even a place that serves 10 dollar eggs.

The booklet offers us a little bit of poetry, and as it was deliberately put there it’s probably worth looking at:

She laid alone
During her best days
As a work of art
Reading naked on the bed

Spent some of her best days
Cleaning carpet from her hair
Spent her worst days
Owing you the pleasure
Of taking blame

Spent her whole life
Disbelieving in her worst fears
A work of art
A work of art

It’s a striking, evocative poem, whose central message (if I’m interpreting it right) seems to reaffirm the central importance of authenticity and salvation. That we’re all capable of being our own artists, our own messiah, if we choose to live our lives as we see fit and choose to rise above both the expectations of others and our own fears. And it doesn’t matter if no one sees it, hears it, or knows about it. In the end the most important audience is ourselves, and the most important judgment about the success of our lives is the one we render for ourselves. In this way the poem seems to anticipate much of No Code, although here this sentiment is still an ideal, not a reality. The subject is capable of recognizing the truth in these sentiments, but that’s not the same thing as being able to experience them, as the last two songs on Vitalogy make very clear.