It’s that time of year when piles of sugar and a barrage of colored lights not-so-subtly implore you to be happy. It’s a fine thing to be happy when it can be found genuinely, and it seems the happy in “Happy Holidays” refers to a simple, uncluttered sort of mood. So I found myself pairing a couple songs which invite you to mull over one of the goals of the season: to experience joy. What is joy? Perhaps a milder form of ecstatic, something more of the moment than gratitude and not quite as anchored as contentment. I notice these songs may not be joyous so much as reflect upon the idea of joy itself.
The tune of Against Me! invites the listener with a single tone followed by a simple acoustic guitar and opening line: “All is quiet, except for this song.” A sense of calm is gained only by keeping things at bay, because “somewhere off in the distance, rapidly advancing, is an onslaught of sorts.” The chaos of the world swirls around with images of fighting and lions, but the chorus evokes a joy of the future, of “every possibility.” As the song builds a few notes are plucked on the electric while the organ continues to provide a comfortable surface. The singer shows the shadowy edges of distrust, but elects to “shrug off” thorny topics in order to–for a moment at least–see the joy that is all around. The song is simple and fits the premise well. Joy is about not overthinking it: the song fades out instead of becoming expansive.
I was pleased to find that Iron & Wine took a similar slowed-down approach to their “Joy.” This one is more of a love song, describing a childlike essence “deep inside the heart of this troubled man.” A new friend is in the picture, and the narrator acknowledges lies and fright and loud noises, but quickly underscores the joy again. Here we pause to get some “ooohs” to back Sam Beam’s nonsense syllables, which add a bit of wistfulness to the scene. Everything is so light and airy, with echoey harmonies and playful keys, as if the song is pulling you through a dream. Then we come to the clincher: “And it’s a heartfelt, silly, sort-of-bumbling tune/ About how you’re bringing me joy.” Again, let’s not make this more than it is.
There are clear parallels between the two songs: they are slow, they are noticeable outliers amongst their surrounding tracks, and they use the title word with repetitive reverence. Against Me! is a punk band with the kind of choppy, stomping rhythms you can probably guess at, and this track provides the necessary breather a little past the halfway point of an album that rages about politics and an insider’s view of the music industry. Its atmospheric structure and featured acoustic guitar provide a much needed breather for the listener–the song is a quiet bridge between louder ideas. Iron & Wine is quite a different band, whose approach gets more instrumentally layered with each album. Although known for plenty of slow numbers, Ghost On Ghost is more of a swirling, unwieldy collection of songs with a jazzy, big band influence, to which Sam Beam adds lyrics at an almost tongue-twisting pace. But when it’s time for “Joy” to have a place early in the album, it stands out almost oddly due to its slack pace and its deliberate unwinding of lovers’ tension which is ramped up throughout the rest of the songs. The title is drawn out and dramatically emphasized, similar to how Against Me! sings the word no less than three times per chorus round.
Finally: both the songs are short. If I’ve gathered anything about this title, it’s that interpretations of joy should come in comfortably under three minutes. Here the musicians have independently put their finger on something: when you consider joy and its uncomplicated, fleeting nature, a few minutes is all you can ever grasp.
Winner: This is a tough one, as both these songs are so calming. I guess it’s Iron & Wine for the sly meta comment about the type of tune we are talking about here.
Against Me! – Joy (2005) (audio)
Iron & Wine – Joy (2013) (animation video)