Better left unsaid

Illustrated Mug of Lauren Harvey

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As I walked through the side entrance of the Regency Ballroom, all I could think was that I felt like the kid in “Almost Famous.” Dainty chandeliers hung still as the floor buzzed with excitement. The grungy ensemble of the crowd somehow seemed to complement the understated elegance of the venue as everyone gradually trickled in, patiently awaiting the arrival of WILLOW.

I wasn’t even supposed to be there. Two days before, my editor texted me to ask if I was available to write a review of the concert, and it took everything within me not to scream in the middle of Doe Library. WILLOW’s album lately i feel EVERYTHING met me at a time in my life best characterized by anxiety, and I reveled in the cathartic possibility of hearing some of my favorite tracks performed live. 

I think it’s pretty safe to say that WILLOW did not disappoint. For those brief few hours, I let go of my individual concerns and melted into the concert crowd. I screamed along to “Transparent Soul,” danced to “Gaslight” and stood stunned during “Come Home.” Yet, there was something about “don’t SAVE ME” that felt different. It was the one song I felt I had to hear, and it was the one song I couldn’t stop thinking about as I drove back home over the Bay Bridge, illuminated through the stretch of darkness. 

“Don’t SAVE ME” is lyrically simple, characterized by a few short lines repeated over a commanding electric guitar. WILLOW claims that she can’t go through her struggles alone, but in the brief interlude of the music, something shifts. Even as she admits to her vulnerability, she emphatically insists, “Don’t save me.”

Though it runs less than two minutes, the song generates explosive tension. Conflicting emotions rub against each other, sparking a sudden fire of adolescent rage. While the guitar appears to stir this collision, it also seems to resolve it. Through each gliding note, it opens up a space where contradictory feelings can simply coexist; it allows us to understand the pushback against the desire to be saved. 

You know a song has hit something deep inside when it is no longer being sung at you. Rather, it seems to flow over and through you. The riffs crash over your head, and you begin to drown — but you’re not struggling for air. Somehow, you abandon their corporeal needs, aided by an off-kilter divinity. That’s how I felt while listening to “don’t SAVE ME” live, as the guitar wrapped me in its cool, liquid embrace. 

Often, I can relate to WILLOW’s contradictory impulses. It is one thing to admit to weakness; it is another to make room for help. As the stresses of school, health and an ongoing pandemic pile on top of me, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m struggling. Yet, instead of welcoming external aid, I sit and dwell in my anxieties, hoping they will disappear on their own. However, as I stood in the Regency Ballroom and listened to the guitar, I felt understood. It spoke truths that I couldn’t fully articulate. Somehow, it seemed to swallow all my fears. 

I think it’s beautiful how a world of meaning can be tucked into simple melodic constructions. The riff in “Iron Man,” the outro of “Layla” and the “Interlude – The Trio” on Blue Banisters are just a few examples of wordless music that make me feel a certain way. When you get rid of the constraints of words, a range of meaning — no matter how contradictory — opens up. 

This quality becomes greater still during a live performance. The sound waves echo off the walls; they shake the chandeliers that hover above. On the floor, the audience sinks into the sound. We cannot quite explain why, but we feel the desire to move and shout and dance. We become part of this beautiful, non-verbal exploration of human emotion.

WILLOW uses the guitar as a conduit to get from one feeling to another. She allows us to feel EVERYTHING, and somehow, that feels right. In that space, there is no need to explain yourself — the music does it all for you. 

These thoughts echoed through my head as I made my way back into the East Bay and settled in my apartment. As I sat in front of my laptop, I pondered how I could translate a nonverbal experience into a 660 word article. So, I put in my wired headphones, played “don’t SAVE ME” on repeat, and allowed the electric guitar to do the talking. From there, the piece practically wrote itself. 

Lauren Harvey writes the Monday A&E column on the relationship between art and the unspoken. Contact her at [email protected].