Pain in a Hundred Ways: No-Man – “All the Blue Changes””

Together We're Stranger

Desert space fades away with the first sign of city lights. Wandering into the city, our narrator finds its rhythm and pulse foreign; he has become defamiliarized to the way of life he once knew. Loss begins to seep into every aspect of his life, and change—which, as Heraclitus taught the world so long ago, is the only constant—has now set in. The sparse, aching moment of heartbreak that opened Together We’re Stranger shined a spotlight on the realities of solitude that start to set in the aftermath of a breakup; it’s with city life that open wounds transform into tender scars.

“All the Blue Changes”, compositionally speaking, is as close to an antithesis No-Man could have written to “Together We’re Stranger”, the poetic ambient opener to their masterwork album. Especially in a live setting, “All the Blue Changes” is all about the crescendo; its gradual build is a wonderful display of this duo’s control of dynamics. But most importantly, this cut introduces the mini-narrative that is contained within Together We’re Stranger‘s first five tracks. (On the CD version of the album, there are only seven tracks; however, for this Between the Grooves series, an eighth, vinyl exclusive track, “Bluecoda”, will be included.) While the title cut is a masterful first chapter to this narrative, in its stark nakedness it could stand by itself. It manages to say almost everything the collective eight tracks of the LP do in its eight-minute length, but it undoubtedly works best within the context of the five-song suite opener.

These songs depict the follies of a man who is never named or described, but becomes vividly real through Tim Bowness’ evocative lyrics. In the No-Man career documentary Returning, Bowness attributes the lyrical inspiration for Together We’re Stranger to several factors, namely the ending of a long-term relationship. Few albums are as personal as this one is; however, Bowness’ tendency to sing open-ended metaphors and images creates a universal quality to this narrative. The narrator here is both a normal guy suffering and a person with so discretely described that it’s as if you’re standing right next to him, taking in his ever-shifting world.

Transition is the key theme of “All the Blue Changes”. As the track that precedes it comes to a close, horns kick in, utterly disrupting the mood that was set in the opening. This transition is much like falling asleep in a car and being suddenly wakened by the blare of horns and the yells of passersby jaywalking in busy traffic. The instrumentation here is one of the places on Together We’re Stranger carries over the low-key jazz stylings of Returning Jesus; the ringing piano chords are a close match to “Chelsea Cap”. What captures the shift from the uninhabited valley of “Together We’re Stranger” to “All the Blue Changes” is the communitarian aspect of the playing; whereas other songs on this LP highlight individual traits of the respective songwriters here, this cut is a pure band effort. In all its live incarnations—specifically on Mixtaped and Love and Endings—it’s consistently a highlight. On the LP version, “All the Blue Changes” is a thing of grace, a slow-build that reaches its peak so subtly it’s almost easy to miss. But when taken to the stage, the song is imbued with a ferocious energy, captured especially in Steven Wilson’s sharp, atonal guitar strums.

The multiplicity of musicians here is a literal manifestation of the hustle-and-bustle of city life. It’s here that the narrator begins to find the contradictions in his suffering, specifically in one of the key refrains on this album: “The city in a hundred ways / It would never let you stay/The city in a hundred ways / It would never let you stray”. It’s a strange feeling, being wanted and unwanted simultaneously, but it’s a state of confusion that’s not unexpected for a person attempting to recover from grief. A break-up—especially one following a long-term, significant relationship—can very much be like moving from one world to another. The shifts don’t always make sense, and most of the time they’re hard to put into words.

Which is where this song’s title comes in. Few Bowness lyrics are as opaque as this one:

All the blue changes

All the blue chains

All the blue changes, rearranged.

The easy reading is to see “blue” as sad, but there’s something more going on here. The carryover of “blue” as “sad” doesn’t work well when considering the parallelism of “blue changes” and “blue chains”: what are “sad chains”, exactly? The next verse helps clarify this:

Giving up on beautiful

And making peace with strange

All the blue changes, rearranged

“And making peace with strange”. There are several lines that just get right at it on this LP, and this is one of them. Not only is our narrator constantly changing, he’s also settling, a sentiment any burned lover will intimately share. In losing “beautiful”, he’s now left by himself to reconstruct whatever world he lived in prior to that relationship. But the city has moved on without him, and the ghosts of all familiar things left behind are all that remain. Things change, and then are rearranged. The only problem our narrator faces is the lack of knowledge about the environment around him; left to describe it, he can only think of one word to describe it: “blue”. It’s a word with numerous associations, each of which could apply in some extent to his current isolation. For now, all he’s left to do is to begin wandering exactly what it is he can do to recover the things he left behind. Amidst the light-speed interactions of metropolis, this will prove to be a difficult task. In one minute the city will provide caverns of warmth; in the next, it will try to expel you along with the flow of traffic.

At least for him there’s still a memory; it may be a fading one, but it will be enough to last him a little bit longer. But now at least he is beginning to see exactly the state he is in, even if he can’t quite fully grasp what these “blue changes” really are: “All the things we were, rearranged”.

Previous entries

*Introduction / “Together We’re Stranger”

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists