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Well Versed #2 — Old Friends

Pinegrove, you guys

If you’re not familiar with Pinegrove, they’re the band you dreamt about starting when you were sixteen.

Not only do they sound fucking great, but you get this sense of camaraderie when you see them perform. If you don’t know them, stop listening to this podcast right now and go look them up on youtube. They are one of the tightest, most joyful bands you could listen to. Excellent musicianship, ridiculously tight harmony, and, most importantly, terrific songwriting.

This is especially true when it comes to the fan-favorite, “Old Friends.” Today, I want to focus on the most well-known part of the song: the third verse. It goes as follows:

Walking out in the nighttime springtime, needling my way home

I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago, I saw some old friends at her funeral

My steps keep splitting my grief through these solipsistic moods

I should call my parents when I think of them, should tell my friends when I love them

Maybe I should have gone out a bit more when you guys were still in town

I got too caught up in my own shit, it’s how every outcome’s such a comedown

To cut right to the chase, this has one the most powerful turns I’ve ever heard in a song. And it’s all the more powerful because of the way it sneaks up on you. Let’s break this verse down line by line:

Walking out in the nighttime springtime, needling my way home

It begins innocently enough. The narrator is walking home in the dark. We don’t know from where. But the word “springtime” suggests that it’s a warm night. And there’s something beautiful about how this leads into the following word, “needle” (both containing a sylvan-esque connotation). It immediately puts you in a place. It reminds me of the walks I’d take back from the bar when I was in college at UConn — basically one big cow town of a campus. I’d stumble home through a path in the woods to my apartment, mind wandering throughout this drunken, lopsided stroll home. And that’s exactly what happens to the narrator in the following line; while his body “needles” his way home, his mind “needles” freely as well.

And where does this take him? To some old friends:

I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago, I saw some old friends at her funeral

This is where the song’s gut-punch lands us on straight on the floor. The narrator introduces a new character, Leah. It seems like it’s just a memory that the narrator’s drunken mind happened to latch onto, someone he’d seen around awhile ago. But then there’s this jump cut from a bus ride to a funeral. The only thread that leads us from one scene to the next is Leah herself. It’s her funeral. By ending the line with the word funeral, we feel how jarring it is when someone you know dies. She was there until she wasn’t. And his mind is still grappling with this suddenness. This turn here immediately shits our perception of the story so far. Before this point, the song feels like it’s filled with typical emo/indie-rock content: a first-person narrative about an aimlessness, sadness, and failed relationships. But after this point, it’s as if the ground had disappeared from under our feet.

Still, the narrator’s feet keep walking just fine, as he says:

My steps keep splitting my grief through these solipsistic moods

Now, normally I’d hate any song that uses the word “solipsistic.” But I think it works here. For one, the opening couplet was so powerful that the lead singer can basically say anything at this point and it would be just fine with me. So, as a listener, it doesn’t rub me the wrong way because I’m already 100% sold on this song.

And there’s something beautiful about the grammatical structure of this line. His “steps” (i.e. his walking) are the subject of the line. It’s the thing that’s doing the action, doing the breaking up of his “solipsistic moods.” What are these “solipsistic moods”? It’s the language the narrator uses to berate himself for constantly thinking about himself as if that he is the only thing that exists, and therefore the only thing worth caring about. But by walking, he’s able to clear his mind and step out of himself, however brief.

There’s also something musically interesting that happens in this line, and it catches your ear right away. The chords don’t go the way you’d expect. You expect to hear this line beginning with the tonic chord (aka the happy home base of the song, musically) just as it would in any other verse in this song. But that doesn’t happen. The tonic is substituted for the minor iv chord. It’s akin to the Deceptive Cadence in classical music: instead of hearing that happy home base of the song, you hear its sad cousin. This chord choice does a terrific job at punctuating the lyrical turn that had just happened, while underlying the “grief” the narrator now feels due to the memory of Leah’s death.

The walking in this verse is also a nice bit of repetition from earlier in the song. In the first verse, the narrator sings how “[his] steps iterate [his] shame.” (Presumably, the narrator is doing a lot of walking around in his town.) In the latter instance of walking, these “steps” are doing something more active: they’re not simply reminding him how he feels — they’re changing his feelings. It’s “splitting” his “solipsistic mood” with “grief.” In a literal sense, he’s walking off his bad state of mind.

“Splitting” has an aggressive, violent connotation. It emphasizes how the narrator, in order to get over himself, uses something painful: grief. And while grief is painful, it can also be a wake-up call. In this instance, makes the narrator more conscious of how brief life can be. And this, in turn, makes him more conscious of what is outside his own existence. That’s why, in the following line, he says:

I should call my parents when I think of them, should tell my friends when I love them

Let’s imagine, for a second, that this was how the narrator opened up this verse. Would this be the line that the crowd seems to invariably shout with the band in every live video I can find of this song? I think that would be unlikely. It wouldn’t have the same emotional heft. But, following the recollection of Leah’s death, it serves as the perfect conclusion. After all, in light of the brevity of our lives, who out there doesn’t realize that they should spend less time in their own heads and more time connecting with the ones they love?

From here, the narrator points out how this selfishness he feels he’s been caught in is at the root of his suffering:

Maybe I should have gone out a bit more when you guys were still in town

I got too caught up in my own shit, it’s how every outcome’s such a comedown

Because he spends so much time in his head, he turns every “outcome” into a “comedown.” He’s expecting something more from himself. That’s the way life goes. Nothing is ever as good as imagined. And the good things slip away unnoticed too easily if we’re not paying attention.

I can’t take credit for discovering this song. Someone had to sit me down and point out how powerful this exact verse is.

I remember when I first heard this song: It was a few years ago in my old apartment in Bushwick. I came out of my room one Friday night and there was this stranger in my living room, drinking Tito’s and ginger ale. He was inexplicably 20 and he loved this band Pinegrove, a name I vaguely knew but couldn’t place. This kid loved them so much that he wouldn’t let me leave my own living room until he played me the song we’re talking about today, Old Friends. He ended up playing it three times in a row. Yes, THREE times in a row. I couldn’t get him to stop. Such is the dedication that Pinegrove seems to inspire in their fanatic fanbase. And every time we got through the third verse, he stopped the music. He’d turn to me and say, “Did you just hear that? Let me play it again.”

And he did. And I understood why. A 20-year-old kid, frozen by death and grief and love by a three-and-a-half-minute pop song.

Everyone who hears this song, I think, has that reaction. That sounds simple enough, but it’s surprisingly difficult to do. And it’s what Pinegrove does so well: they get crowds of people to all have a similar emotional reaction to the same line. And what a wonderful thing, to fill a crowd of strangers with the same desire to call their parents, to tell their friends they love them.

To any of my friends reading this, I love you.

Did you like reading this essay? You can enjoy it in audio form on the podcast version here.

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Musician, writer, and outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks