Matthew E. White’s “Tranquility” is lovely. It’s about a fatal heroin overdose. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose, to be precise. And it’s lovely.
I’ve spent three months listening to Fresh Blood, White’s latest record, as often as I can take it. In nearly every pre-release interview I’ve read, he mentions that spending two years playing 2012’s Big Inner on the road made him want to be a better songwriter, and while Fresh Blood doesn’t groove quite as strongly as its predecessor, its songs are tighter, his characters more sympathetic. “Circle ‘Round the Sun,” which chronicles the suicide of a friend’s religious mother (“Put your arms around me, Jesus, like the circle ‘round the sun”), is strong enough to derail half a workday.
But White’s newfound energy for songcraft is what makes “Tranquility” such a confounding listen. It’s not lovely and bitter like “The Needle and the Damage Done.” It’s not lovely and defiant like “Needle in the Hay.” It’s simply, unequivocally lovely. And that feels problematic for a song about a heroin overdose.
Musically, it’s a fitting tribute to Hoffman’s work. It’s slightly burly, unflinching in its depiction of Hoffman’s end – a scorch of guitar interrupts White’s gentle piano line – but it’s also touching, tender. “Angel of the cosmos, turn your heart to me/And give me just a minute of your infinity,” he sings in response to the guitar threat.
A few moments later, though, the song shifts into its two-minute coda. Over quietly moaning pedal steel and a shuffling beat, White coos “I rid my heart of all that resists tranquility” over and over. A string movement rises and becomes thin, nearly translucent. It’s a stunning, gorgeous moment on an album built around stunning, gorgeous moments. It’s no surprise that White used it as the soundtrack to the album’s trailer. Free of context, it may be the album’s strongest passage.
But it doesn’t exist free of context. “I rid my heart of all that resists tranquility.” How are we supposed to hear that line? It’s a strange thing to say in a song about a life-crippling drug whose principal effects are an inflated sense of tranquility and an exaggerated ease and detachment from the world. Is White speaking for himself, disavowing the pain of mourning? It doesn’t seem likely. The song’s narrator is almost perversely nonjudgmental – “We feel no bitterness,” goes the line just before the coda – and White has no qualms addressing pain head-on elsewhere on Fresh Blood.
That leaves Hoffman. And I don’t know what to do with that. Because the song’s structure, the way it drops into the coda and sits there in rapture for so long, suggests that tranquility is a victory over the noise and frustration of addiction. And from what I understand, it most certainly can be, when that tranquility comes from years of hard-won sobriety. But I’m not so sure that’s the case here, where the release comes in defeat. I’m not an addict, but I understand that the temptation – “temptation” doesn’t even seem close to being a strong enough word here – to relieve the relentless pressure must be unbearable. People don’t typically talk about relapses as victories of peace and ease over the hardship of staying sober, though. That’s why “Tranquility”’s loveliness is so confounding; it seems to confuse the psychic effects of the drug for spiritual effects.
There’s something in the moment itself, though, in the way White deftly allows minor percolations of percussion to meld with his piano playing and the wordless backup vocal. It’s beautiful enough to live in. He repeats the phrase so many times that the two minutes unmoor themselves from the rest of the song and become an almost physical place. You want to believe him. It takes fifty listens, maybe, before you begin to hear how sad he sounds. His voice trails off at the end of the line, barely able to finish the word “tranquility.” He doesn’t even get the “I” in there at the beginning, either; it’s a minor rolling of the “r” in “rid.” Rid my heart of all that resists tranquility. It’s a command. Or a supplication. Which means that it’s Hoffman here, singing to the pile of bags in his lap. And that means that “Tranquility” isn’t about a triumph of any kind. And it certainly isn’t lovely. words / m garner