Songs That Make Me Think: ‘Time, As A Symptom’ by Joanna Newsom

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I can’t think of many musicians that I would actively call ‘unique’ … I mean, sure! We’re all unique in our own way, and so every musician who plays a G chord on a guitar, plays that chord in a way that is unique to them – no two G chords are the same! But, that being said, G chords often do sound EXACTLY the same, regardless of who is playing it..

Joanna Newsom, though, is one musician – possibly the only musician – that I can bring myself to call unique. I genuinely can’t think of anyone who quite makes music like hers… Her music certainly doesn’t please everybody’s ears, but even those who despise her most would surely admit that there’s something… erm… different! about her music.

‘Time As a Symptom’ is the closing track of Newsom’s 4th album (‘Divers’, 2015), and it is quite the breathtaking finale. The lyrics are clearly conceptual, using the abstract notion of ‘time’ as the main subject. There is one line in the song which acts as a kind of punchline:

“it pains me to say, I was wrong: love is not a symptom of time; time is a symptom of love.”

Now, personally, I find this line to be kinda cheesy … I’m a legitimate Newsom disciple, but this line made me cringe a little bit, I must admit!! Still, I have mulled it over and, in spite of its cringiness, the line has made me think a lot.

The song reminds me of the hypothesis that our existence is a simulation, in lieu with The Matrix movies. The reason for that reminder is due to the notion that time makes up the essence of what we could call reality … time and space, together, contain everything that we humans are capable of knowing. So, in the simulation hypothesis, our experience must have been manufactured by something (or someone?!) in a similar way to the way humans today create computerised, virtually infinte worlds. In this hypothesis, time is, indeed, a symptom of love – because our existence was created, and to create life (broadly, loosely, and perhaps inaccurately speaking) is a loving thing to do.

When we talk about “falling in love,” this often requires time. You could argue that a child’s love for its parents is an example of true love requiring no time at all … but I think the only reason the child loves its parents is because everything they need is provided for them by their parents. Love, therefore, is a symptom of time. It takes time to nurture a child, after all.

So perhaps the narrator in this song is wrong again! Maybe love IS a symptom of time … but then again, maybe the narrator is right as well as being wrong, because time, in theory, is also a symptom of love.

(If you’re not following me, I don’t blame you! Ha.)

What I’m trying to say is that maybe love is a symptom of time; but time is also a symptom of love. It’s like the chicken and the egg theory.

This perspective falls in line with the Taoist philosophies that I advocate so much, of Yin Yang and duality … That is to say, the creatOR (love/god/the mysterious) and the creatED (time/life/the apparent) are one and the same.

This song touches on duality in other ways, too. For example, in this lyric:

“The nullifying, negating, defeating, repeating Joy of life…”

To describe ‘joy’ as nullifying, negating, defeating, and repeating is seemingly contradictory: joy is generally considered a positive thing, while the words used to describe it are generally negative. Perhaps Newsom’s narrator is, in a very Taoist way, pointing at ‘the postive’ and ‘the negative’ as one and the same – you can’t have one without the other, you might say! Even if that same narrator is wrong about time and love (kind of).

Anyway, it’s food for thought… Anybody who is familiar with Newsom’s music will know that her lyrics are very, very open to interpretation, and no one interpretation is necessarily right or wrong. I’ve heard her discuss the perceived “abstract” nature of her lyrics before (“not on purpose,” she responded, with an undertone of guilt … ha!).

Personally, I appreciate lyrics that don’t try to force a specific message down our throats; and the infinite possibilities that Joanna Newsom’s music presents to my mind is the very reason I enjoy her music so much.

I understand why someone wouldn’t enjoy her music. But I hope that, if anybody listens to her for the first time after reading this article, you will not judge her too harshly, or immediately … I would suggest that you allow your pallet adapt to her before you solidify your opinion. Like many people’s relationship to wine, I suppose.

I think comparing Newsom to wine is a fair description. Her music is rich, subtle, and luxurious. And it grows on you as your pallet improves.

2 Responses

  1. merry

    this is one song i never received a psychic weenie about.. that line perplexes me, and I’m still trying to come up with a meaning for that ‘punchline’.. perhaps, given enough time, one can find love, or, fall in love, or even come to understand love, and, once one is ‘in love’, iow, in alignment, or, in the flow and connected to who they really are- then, time actually becomes irrelevant- we can even lose track of it (negated?)! i don’t know, it’s close, but, not quite right.
    but i like your description! and, i love how she talks about time moving both ways- for me, implying we come into form and we also exit this form (we come in, we go out)- and then she brilliantly links the end of this track to the beginning of the first track.. gah
    you don’t have to convince me of anything.
    love this! thank you, tom.

    • Tom Robinson

      glad you enjoyed it, Merry! thanks for reading, and for commenting 🙂

      that punchline really is a bit cryptic, isn’t it? time moving both ways fits in with my ideas quite well — good observation! this is my favourite of the last track on any of joanna’s albums. so thematic, so good… and like you say, linking it to the first track is really special. she’s good, that’s for sure!

      thanks again!

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