Mortal City

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Dot writes: on Something More on Tuesday Tim Shiel played a track by Domhnall called ‘Lucy Hates Her Life in the Big City’. I was reminded, by the title more than by the piece itself, of Dar Williams’ song ‘Mortal City’, from her 1996 album of the same name (this is a link to Spotify so you can listen to the song; it’s the last track). It also seemed appropriate because it’s a piano-led track and the episode was themed around Piano Day.

It’s one of those songs that hovers between the rhythms of ordinary speech and lyric. The lines are long and prosy, too many syllables. At the start, the accompaniment is hardly there, just the odd unresolved piano chord.

She never should have rented this apartment in the mortal city
The cold comes through every gap she puts her hand up to
The radiator doesn’t work, she has to use electric heat

But as it progresses more instrumentation is added, strings and guitar, melancholy and wistful. I love this gradual coalescence of the music, the emergence of something that sounds more like a song. The prose rhythms of the vocal start to be tugged into the lyricism of the melody. The song tells a story about a woman who’s isolated and unhappy in the city and who on her first date with a man is trapped with him in her flat during a severe storm; they turn off the power because there’s an appeal to save power for the hospital. She tells him of what a cold, dead place the city seems to her, but he talks about how people enjoy the city’s bustle, and how they are acting together to help the hospital. It’s a song that tries to say something quite serious about human loneliness, mortality, the atomisation of modern living, but also the capacity of humans to love and care for each other. It could easily be sentimental and it almost is, but on Tuesday I listened to it after the radio show had finished and I found the tears were running down my cheeks. I suppose I was feeling a bit over-wrought.

We are not lost in the mortal city
We are not lost in the mortal city

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