I am in the wilderness

From the first, arresting line of the song you are with Sade, in the same place as her, in the wilderness. But what or where is the wilderness? The wilderness can be a particular place, like the Gobi desert or the shores of Kamchatka, or it can be a metaphorical, spiritual or emotional state, as when people refer to “the wilderness years.”

 

And it evokes the biblical wilderness which is a place of spiritual discovery as well as a physical location, as it was for the prophet Elijah when he “went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).

 

At the same time as she tells you exactly where she is (and where you are as you listen to the song) she puts herself in a somewhere which you can’t yet define.

 

Such poetic ambiguity is not surprising in Sade. In “Your love is king” (1984) she sings

Your love is king

I’ll crown you with my heart

Your love is king

Never need to part

Your kisses rain, round and round and round my head

His kisses rain, falling like rain around her head, but his kisses also “reign” like the king of love. That sort of wordplay is poetry.

 

I am in the wilderness

You are in the music

These two lines ostensibly place and locate her and him. She is in the wilderness of the arresting opening line, he is in the music. But what is “the music”? Is it “the music” in the abstract, or a particular song? And, in either case, where is the music? Even if it is a particular song, the two places, wilderness and music, are impossible to put on a common map which could lead her to him.

 

I am in the wilderness

You are in the music

In the man’s car next to me

This line begins with the third “in” in the song. The abstraction of “in the music” from the second line suddenly condenses, with the force of a revelation, into the realisation that she’s next to a man’s car (I imagine her on a highway, on a hot night in the US when the traffic has slowed to a standstill), and her lover is somehow in the music playing on that car’s stereo. Just as the first two lines place people while making the relationship between those places enigmatic, the third line is at once tangible and definite – making him immediately present in the music she’s hearing, in the car right next to her – and also remote and removed, only present in the memory of a song that brings him back vestigially. What’s so strong about this line I think is that he comes back to her in the music in another man’s car. Rather than representing any temptation for her, or any competition with her lover, the other man in the car, so tangible and real, becomes almost ghostly and immaterial, he melts away before the memory of her lover which comes alive in the song that happens to be playing on the other man’s car stereo. As Madeleine Peyroux sings in “I’m Alright” (2006): “I’d like to believe that it’s easy to leave/ But I have to conceive that wherever you are/ You’re still driving my car.”

 

I am in the wilderness

You are in the music

In the man’s car next to me

Somewhere in my sadness

Four lines, four places, four “ins.” So she’s in the wilderness, he’s in the music … in the man’s car. And now we are told about somewhere in her sadness, a place in her emotions juxtaposed with the other real or metaphorical places that form the jigsaw of her distance from her lover.

 

I am in the wilderness

You are in the music

In the man’s car next to me

Somewhere in my sadness

I know I won’t fall apart

So somewhere in her sadness – but she doesn’t know where – she knows. As if this knowledge were to be found in her sadness like a phone or a mirror in her handbag. Again there is this beautiful, subtle play between absence (“somewhere”) and presence (“I know”). And what she knows, somewhere in her sadness, is that she “won’t fall apart.”

 

What does it mean to say “I know I won’t fall apart”? Like so much in this song it is both a kind of certainty (“I know”) and a kind of vulnerability, as if everywhere except for this one, mysterious and indeterminate place in her sadness, she might fall apart.

 

(1) I am in the wilderness

(2) You are in the music

(3) In the man’s car next to me

(4) Somewhere in my sadness

(5) I know I won’t fall apart

(6) Completely

The beauty of the rhyme scheme is breathtaking here. Three lines followed by three lines. “Wilderness” (line one) rhymes with “sadness” (line three) but “music” (line two) doesn’t rhyme with “apart” (line four) – even though that line is so strong and definite (“I know”). But somewhere in her sadness, she knows she won’t fall apart completely. She may fall apart, she may not, but somewhere in her sadness she knows that if she falls apart it won’t be completely. The three lines shift from the tentative to the definite to a sudden loss of certainty. But it’s a partial loss of certainty, as if she lost her grip on a mountainside and fell, but was suddenly able to grab hold again and not fall apart completely. And this word “completely,” in which the shift from uncertainty to a fleeting control followed by its vulnerable but resilient loss is accomplished, re-establishes the rhyme scheme, “completely” (line six) rhyming with “next to me” (line three).

 

When I need to be rescued

And I need a place to swim

I have a rock to cling to in the storm

When no one can hear me calling

I have you I can sing to.

And in all this, and in all my life

You are the lover’s rock

The rock that I cling to

You’re the one, the one I cling to in the storm

Like a lover’s rock

The rest of the song doesn’t have the same ambiguity and artistry of the opening, but it’s a simple and moving rendering of a romantic idea. The lover’s rock is (for me at least) such a beautiful and compelling version of that idea because it comes after the glimmers and flashes of the opening, the certainty that her lover is there like a rock only comes after we’ve followed her searching for him, from the wilderness to the music to the man’s car to that somewhere in her sadness. It’s easy for cynics to dismiss such lyrics as sentimental. I think they are a rare combination of tender simplicity and poetic subtlety.

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