Nathan Jolly

200 Sad Songs: #159 Little Birdy – Relapse (2003)

Despite the author being a teenager, ‘Relapse’ is far deeper than the standard diary fare. The visceral feeling of love amputated bleeds off the page. 

 

 

“Never have I met someone as insensitive as you.” Despite the almost quaint formality of the wording – you cannot imagine anyone in a passion-fuelled rage yelling “never have I met” – the second line of ‘Relapse’ sets up the pain that vocalist and songwriter Katy Steele would spend the next three-and-a-half minutes cycling through. The preceding line suggests this relationship started in a complicated space – “I’ll help you through your pain if you help me through yours” is hardly the stuff great romances are built from – while the title suggests an unhealthy dependence. All in all, this song is an open wound, despite how gorgeous the melody is.

Katy Steele was just 19 when she recorded ‘Relapse’, and younger still when she wrote it – I’ve heard she was 17 – and despite the musical sophistication, lyrically this makes sense. Please note, this is not intended as an insult in any way, this just sounds like a teenage diary entry in the best, most messy fashion. You know when you can tell dialogue intended for young people is written by a middle-aged man; when it sounds too logical and too emotionally removed to ring true? (see: ‘The Social Network’) This song is the opposite, oscillating freely from one extreme to another without being in service of a neat narrative or a through-line. That’s how angry heartbreak feels, and it’s often devoid of quick quips or dry observations. It’s shock at having the rug pulled, denial of your own feelings, self-hatred for fantasising about a love that has hurt you before, and will again. It’s the line she repeats the most in ‘Relpase’: “I can’t help this pain that I’m feeling.”

“I want to escape what you’ve done to my life” is immediately countered with “I love the way that you’re always on my mind”, which is often the rub when attracted to someone who is bad news. “Explain what my touch means to you if it does”, she begs later. She is captivated, but unsure if he is.

The song also contains what I refer to as a “tattoo line” – the zen-zing “existence is purpose” – which is the most succinct three-word explanation for the meaning of life I’ve heard. I’m almost certain at least one person had this phrase inked onto their body sometime during that crazy post Y2K-scare period (email me). It would make a great tattoo and a decent bumper sticker.

None of this would mean anything much though without the song’s one ace in the hole – Katy Steele’s pure, soaring vocal. This was the first song from the band’s first EP and the best thing they ever recorded. It’s classy, it doesn’t rush to build to an easy hook, it sits outside of trends or production styles, and it understands that when it comes to pain, love or anything floating in-between, we have no real say. That’s okay though; especially when you know the meaning of life.

Nathan Jolly

Nathan is a Sydney-based journalist who has written for numerous publications over the years, including Junkee, This Recording, New York Post, The BRAG, SBS, Triple J Mag, Channel [V], and news.com.au. He used to be pretty good at hitting three-pointers, and can still cartwheel, although he never learnt to swim, drive, or manage money.

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