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September 14, 2008

Posted by Tim in Poetry.

About a year and half ago I bought Nickel Creek’s album Why Should the Fire Die?  It is excellent.  There has always been, however, one track that I never cared for.  Today on the drive to church the CD was in and I payed close attention to it for the first time.  Behold “Helena”:

Helena, don’t walk away
Before you give me back my heart
If it were mine, it would be yours to take
I’m sorry I’ve let down my guard, oh Helena

You looked so sweet
I should have seen
While I was playing for fun
You were playing for keeps

You win, I lose, is there some way
You can leave me in your debt
So my girl and I can live to die another day
On that day I won’t forget you, Helena

You look so sweet waiting for me
While I wait for her to give me any reason to leave
Don’t waste your pretty sympathy
She’s gonna be just fine

And Helena, so will we
So will everything in time

Helena, don’t walk away
Did you hear one word I said
Oh well, I never really liked us anyway
And I forgot her, I’ll forget you, Helena

You’re not that sweet
And neither is she
Go ahead and tell her anything you want
Cause Helena, guys like me never sleep alone at night
I don’t need your sympathy
Cause I’ll always be just fine

Yeah, I’ll always be just fine
Yeah, I’ll always be just fine

What a great break-up song.  It should be noted that of the eleven songs on the album, there are at least six songs about lost love.  They range from reminiscent (“Tomorrow is a Long Time”) to the broken (“Can’t Complain”).

As an aspiring writer, I can’t help but make a few notes about why I now love this song.

First, it breaks the mold of break-up songs by not dwelling on a singular emotion.  Most break-up songs, even if good, are one-sided tunes about sadness or flippancy.  But this one transforms.  It is certainly in the words (note the sharp turn in tone beginning with the second “Helena, don’t walk away”).  The music enhances this: it starts very delicately, and ends so intensely that they actually incorporate drums, the only instance on the acoustic album.

Second, the subtlety.  The first stanza asks for his heart back, saying “If it were mine, it would be yours to take.”  This has to be the cleverest mention of the ‘other’ girl I’ve ever encountered in any break-up song (of which there are MANY).  Also, because the lyrics double back on themselves, the song is loaded with the lost-art of irony.  The speaker, once deflected early on, starts covering up his emotion and protecting himself by lying.  What a detour from the teen-angst emo songs that just dump feelings onto tracks.

Third, the concept of conversation.  Helena certainly does not speak in this song, or in the pauses.  And that’s the conversation.  Rather than a once-for-all pronouncement, the voice is reacting throughout the song to Helena’s coldness.  There’s even an indication that Helena adjusts her step, from simply walking away from the speaker to walking toward his girl to reveal his unfaithfulness: “Go ahead and tell her anything you want.”  This increases the rate at which the speaker becomes desperate (which is painted over as detachment and anger, but we know better).  He even abandons his girl, not just Helena (“I never really liked us anyway”).

Fourth, the wisdom.  This is how we act!  We guard ourselves militantly, and when we let it down, we get hurt, and up comes the wall again.  “I’m sorry I’ve let down my guard, oh Helena.”  But of course, walls rarely work, and the song is a tribute to that failure.  It climaxes with a cruel, but ultimately vulnerable declaration: “Guys like me never sleep alone at night.”

I can’t find any symbolism behind the name Helena.  They do toy with it some in the song, in my ear playing with the word “hell”, such as in the line “Go ahead and tell…”, which when voiced emphasizes the “he” and “ell”.  Maybe a tie-in to Helen of Troy?  Who knows.  They do have a song on the album dedicated to a Joyce short-story character (“Eveline”), so I imagine there’s a purpose (or a person) behind the name.



1. Deanna - March 10, 2009

I’m so glad you wrote about this. I’d always wondered about this song. While I loved the musicality, I never grasped the idea behind it. You did an excellent job at bringing clarity.:)


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