The New Pornographers have a new album, Brill Bruisers, coming out in August, but for now let’s jump back four long years to their previous album Together (2010) and a song I liked a lot from that one.
A look at half a dozen lyrics sites finds everyone hearing different words for “My Shepherd.” I’m going to piece together the choices that make the most sense to me, even though I don’t make complete sense of the song. Its writer, A. C. Newman, claims he was going off the idea of an odd couple’s psychosexual relationship, possibly straying into violence or possibly into indifference. And isn’t that the way all psychosexual relationships end up?
What I like best about the song is Neko Case’s vocal, the way it's soft and pliant on the verses and then gets strident on the hooks. On one surge she sings, “If I’m honest, you come to mind / But, baby, I’m not.” That admission says a lot. It’s like saying “I would tell you I think about you, but only if I were being honest.” It reminds me a bit of the part in Greg Brown’s “’Cept You and Me” that I mentioned in that post. Honesty in such matters is a will-o-the-wisp, isn’t it? Never ask someone, “who are you thinking of?” Or, as Bobby D. has it: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’—I just might tell you the truth.”
The other part that really gets sung with feeling and is the linchpin of the whole thing is: “You’re my lord, you’re my shepherd / Careful, kid, no one gets hurt / You made me.” There’s a whole psychosexual relation crammed into that! That feeling of utter attachment, even utter abandon—making “you” my lord and my shepherd (“I shall not want, in green pastures he leadeth me” . . . and all that, including “goodness and mercy” and walking through the shadow of death with no fear of evil). If that’s how you feel then the caution “careful, kid, no one gets hurt” is apropos. Because if you’re feeling that way (your lover is a god), chances are you’re gonna get hurt. “You made me”—there you have it: placing agency upon someone else: “I’m not really like this, you made me this way.” OK, sure, but it always takes two to tango, kid.
So what’s Neko murmuring about in the verses? See/hear her sing it on this show, and still be none the wiser as she murmurs even more than she does on the album. We start with “Glasswork shards decorate this house / We’re tossing lost arts out windows” (some hear that as “lust darts” which I suppose could work—see the couple roaming the house looking out windows lustfully for someone else to come along and get into it with them—but to me the lyric sets up a contrast between “lost arts” and “the science behind” things that keeps getting referred to) “The splash and jangle of the secret science defied / You claim some golden age is upon us.” Some hear “defied” as “defined” and it very well may be, but I think the golden age is coming from defying science and tossing lost arts. This is very much a DIY couple, onto some discovery that on one else is simpatico with.
It gets harder: “You always love short story form / The science behind it, a hidden verse” (?—I’m not really sure about “verse” but it’s the best I’ve seen suggested; it would mean that the science behind short story form is verse, which is interesting); “You live for flame and the attraction’s new / The leather’s pulled from a secret room.” So, they’re into leather? I guess. Others hear “the lever’s pulled” (which does go well with this science experiment/mad scientist idea, still I would expect the lever to be pulled “in” a secret room not “from;” I think they’re breaking out their leather).
“Closed eyes stare into morning sun / When the dots form into connections.” This seems clear enough—brooding about it next morning, connecting the dots: “If I’m honest, you come to mind / But, baby, I’m not.” So, in trying to assess the damage or the delight, let’s leave “you” out of it.
Now here comes the pay-off verse, where some of the strands, as I’m hearing them, come together: “The impact pounds into working script” (we’re getting an idea out of this!) “We stare in wonder at the steps we skipped” (well, there’s no knowing how inspiration works); “Tripping wires we have so carefully crossed / The science behind it at a perfect loss.” So, we’ve crossed our wires and pounded out our script and we’ve skipped some steps and come up with a plan or a scheme or a blueprint for this here psychosexual science experiment we call love.
Then comes “the Lord, shepherd, careful, kid” part—and with good reason. This creature is fully empowered, but only within the terms of this agreement, this pact. Elsewhere, there might be a lot of pain. So, careful there.
And then comes a weird little bit: “Used up all of the French we took / The science behind it was a dirty look / So joue pas de rock’n’roll / Joue pas de rock’n’roll pour moi.” Not sure where the French comes in—“Don’t know nothing ‘bout the French I took,” sure, and the idea of a “dirty look” being the lingua franca (heh) that brings it all down works well enough. Then that kiss off (which Newman cribbed from Johnny Hallyday, a French singer): “don’t play rock’n’roll / don’t play rock’n’roll for me.”
I guess if I’m gonna quit you, I’m gonna quit that damn devil’s music too . . . and all that science behind it into the bargain. And, if we keep our eyes on the prize, I guess, we can say “no one gets hurt”—there was no miracle after all, and so we won’t fall that far or that hard. Still, the song ends on a coda of “try to fail.”
For me, that’s probably the most elusive aspect of the whole experiment. We supposed we were trying to accomplish something, though it may be that we were just trying, as Beckett says, to fail better. Yup, and turn off the stereo on the way out, would ya? Or, as the Mekons would say, “throw a rock’n’roll song on the fire.” It’s been my lord, my shepherd, and it made me this way.
Now, everybody . . . “Jenny said when she was just five years old . . .”