"The Special Two" - a brilliant marriage of Mr Regret and Ms Despair

SongExpresso may be a little bit in love. Having had a SongCrush(TM) at various times on Suzanne Vega and Neil Finn, it was almost inevitable that he would end up being drawn to Missy Higgins. Honest tunes in an honest voice - result: melted SongExpresso heart.

The best way to explain all this is to dive straight into "The Special Two"::

The Special Two
(MISSY HIGGINS, Published by Control)

Album The Sound of White, 2005

I've hardly been outside my room in days
'cause I don't feel that I deserve the sunshine's rays
The darkness helped until the whiskey wore away
and it was then I realized the conscience never fades.

So it's a break-up song. Yadda-yadda? Could be, but note the use of the word "conscience" - that's not the same as "because I wasn't good enough" or "I hate my life". Is a theme emerging? Let's listen on....

When you're young you have this image of your life:
that you'll be scrupulous and one day even make a wife.

Firstly, any lyrics containing the word scrupulous are automatically going to get me interested. But, again, the choice of word is deliberate and telling. So if she wasn't scrupulous, what did she do? Also who would use the word "scrupulous"? - perhaps a literate and thoughtful person and not someone who strolls amorally through life. And "even" make a wife - maybe she was wayward as a younger person but imagined that she'd settle down and move on. We get a little taste of who this character is.

And you make boundaries you'd never dream to cross,
and if you happen to you wake completely lost.

So she definitely crossed a boundary. "Happened" to do so. In the context of what we just heard, is this a hint that this self-imposed boundary might have been in conflict with her real self, and perhaps there was something inevitable about her crossing it? Nevertheless, now she's "lost" and the regret is tangible. Subtle things, but the character and story are unfolding. We're not directly told that the misdemeanour was the cause of the break up - but we're sure it was.

But I will fight for you, be sure that
I will fight until we're the special two once again.

OK, so she will fight - but I think, like the chorus below, we can take this two ways. On its face we can see a vivid plea to get back together, a compelling reassurance that the passion will return as it is meant to. On other hand, do we detect an undercurrent of a little warning, threatening and bordering on the obsessive? SongExpresso feels drawn to the darker interpretation...

And we will only need each other, we'll bleed together,
our hands will not be taught to hold another's,
'cause we're the special two.
And we could only see each other, we'll breathe together,
these arms will not be taught to need another's,
'cause we're the special two.

This is quite imperative - we will only need and see each other, and that is an order! The use of the word bleed also maintains us in a state of red alert. And the hands and arms not being "taught": it's a really effective phrase showing their natural state of being with each other and rebelling against usurpers, but if we are going the darker route, a bit unnerving, as if any attempt to tame them will end badly...

I remember someone old once said to me:
"that lies will lock you up with truth the only key."

Now it gets more complex - not only did she cross the boundary, she worries about whether to come clean. Uh-oh, going to get messy.

But I was comfortable and warm inside my shell,
and couldn't see this place could soon become my hell.

And it did get messy. Taking for granted that their relationship was strong enough to survive, it looks like she opted for honesty. Uh-oh again.

So is it better to tell and hurt or lie to save their face?
Well I guess the answer is don't do it in the first place.

Still going round and round on this. It was an impossible choice anyway. Intractable guilt, ill-advised soul-baring, and resulting burnt bridges pile on the regret.

I know I'm not deserving of your trust from you right now,
but if by chance you change your mind you know I will not

let you down 'cause we were the special two, and will be again.

Is reality biting? At first not necessarily: "right now" hints that things can still work out. But then it probably does: if "by chance" you change your mind - even in borderline psycho-stalker mode, deep down she seems to know that this is a long shot. All in keeping with the cerebral and tormented character we see in the song.

[Chorus]

I step outside my mind's eye's for a minute
And I look over me like a doctor looking for disease,
or something that could ease the pain.
But nothing cures the hurt, you, you bring on by yourself,
just remembering, just remembering how we were...

Kapow. She comes to the realisation that not only is the situation hopeless and all she has is memories, that she only has herself to blame, but potentially also - though I hesitate to go too far here - that she might even see herself teetering on the edge of an unhealthy mental state.

[Chorus]

The final chorus is a touch different and follows on from the line before:

remembering how we were…
When we would only need each other....

The past tense puts the special relationship further away in time, no longer within retrievable reach. Perhaps she is becoming more resigned to the fact and pulling away (painfully) from the ravine of desperation.

_______

Let's take a minute to appreciate the richness and intensity. For SongExpresso, just the title in itself is already up there with the great titles like "Un-Break my Heart". But she has taken it to so many more layers of meaning:

  • "We're the special two, special, two, us, together, forever" (yay, Celine Idol!)
  • "We were the special two but now you're gone and I'm sad and wish it could all be back like it was before" (I've got the nicely-titled-but-seen-it-all-before blues)
  • "We were the special two but now you're gone and I'm sad and it's all my fault" (emo, definitely)
  • "We were the special two but now you're gone and it's all my fault because deep down I am prone to self-sabotage" (Nashville, no?)
  • "We were the special two but now you're gone and it's all my fault because deep down I am prone to self-sabotage and naivety, as well as a sense of guilt and morality I inherited somewhere in my youth, which now is threatening to make me somewhat unhinged, but even I can see that" (only Missy Higgins).

Missy (if I may be so bold) could have left it in any one of those other places and I am sure we would have had a satisfying and memorable song. But by layering on this additional complexity we have a great song. We are led gradually into the darkness of a mind almost broken, hopefully temporarily, by despair and regret. (Probably that's not the way it worked and she started from a - reportedly real - complex and intense emotional situation, and wrung it into song form, but you get the point.)

We may not want or be able to emulate this every time. But we can bear in mind a couple of things at least: 

  • every word counts to make or break our mood or to build up or deflate our story - so as here they should all be considered and deliberate;
  • the order and speed in which things are revealed are important - we want to build logically and each time add something new and relevant. If a verse doesn't do this should we even keep it? Did we give away the entire story at the beginning? Why? Do we need to re-order, be more subtle, so our story accumulates in a more interesting and attention-grabbing way?
  • as a small final point, consider how the word you appears in both its meanings ("when you're young you have an image..." and "I will fight for you"). Depending on where you're from, like me you probably do this all the time in normal speech - and the tone of this song is very natural in that way - but when we're doing this we just need to be aware of any potential for confusion that this might bring with it (none here).

I don't think SongExpresso is reading too much into this: it's all there if we listen. And it's not a one-off (get the album, get all the albums). While SongExpresso goes away wistfully to rename his cat "Missy", as always, let us know your thoughts.