"The Things We Never Said" / Thea Gilmore
Thanks to my friend Tom for turning me onto Thea Gilmore. All I’ve got so far is her second album, 2002’s Rules for Jokers, but I’m impressed by this British singer-songwriter's assurance, remarkable for a woman still in her 20s. Sure, it has a throwback acoustic folk sound – she clearly has listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell (haven’t we all?) – but the tough, cynical spirit reminds me more of Aimee Mann. Gilmore’s voice is supple, rich, and exquisitely musical; it sounds great here against the simple guitar, with just a touch of harpsichord-like electric piano, a mournful cello, and a ghostly warped tone that might be a theremin.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and there’s a load of fury in this break-up song. Stunned, Gilmore faces her now-ex-lover, sputtering sarcasm as she takes in the bad news – “Could you say that again, babe / I've not heard that one before,” then quickly narrows her eyes, already seeing him in a new light – “You're looking four years older / You're looking for the door.” Like a movie, we jump-cut to her scrawling a farewell obscenity on the mirror in lipstick (love how she bites off that vicious expletive) before storming into the night. It’s bleak outside – “the old launderette is hissing out a song again / Like it doesn't give a damn / And the cars are all french kissing / In some lonely traffic jam,” and yeah, maybe she’s projecting her misery on the scene, but I see it at once, a jumbled cinematic montage of urban images. And one last detail of her loneliness, “I’ve been talking to the radio / ‘Cos it don’t answer back.” I can see that scene too. You talkin’ to me?
I love how this melody matches the theme, hopelessly wavering and fluttering in melancholy chromatic steps. Even on the chorus, where Gilmore's voice rises higher and sweeter, the notes never quite reach that happier key they’re straining for. With a poet’s gift for transforming clichés, she plays with the image of a castle built on sand: “There's the sand / There's the spade / That dug the trenches that we made / Babe, our foundations were built on / All the things we never said.”
That fatal lack of communication – no matter how she guarded herself (wearing “tin plate armour” and “practicing my swan song”), in the end it was bound to trip them up. She sees that now – not that it makes her feel any better. Her words get tangled and confused: “You keep trying to tell me that / You'd been trying to tell me all along....” We never learn what they would’ve said to each other if they had had the courage – that’s irrelevant. It’s the cowardice that did them in.
The last verse is a bitter valediction: “Here's hoping you and her are happy / A little fairy tale to be / Hope you stay together and don't pollute / Any more fish in the sea.” (Note the sly malice in that upended cliché – we know this jerk will eventually move on again, and again.) Then comes the traditional break-up song finale, a forecast of their next meeting: “And next time I bump into you / Put your hands where I can see them / So that I can strip search your eyes / To check for any hidden feeling.” I can feel him squirming already.
We're far from the simple “You left me, now I’m blue, come back to me” sort of break-up song. Feeling blue is for saps. Thea Gilmore takes us right to the knife’s edge, to that moment of blind rage and pain, and probes the wound . . . just so we’ll be prepared the next time it happens to us.
The Things We Never Said sample