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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Kiss from a Rose" yields a momentary, yet troubling warmth

Much more than a movie ballad, Seal's signature song deals with a duality between love and addiction for its entire duration.

The massive storm that hit the Bay Area this past weekend has left a damp coldness in its wake.

Gone is the rain about which I posted last night, yes, but so too is the cloud cover that accompanied it. Without anything in the current meteorological system to keep in heat, tonight is far colder than the nights which preceded it, with temperatures dipping into the low 50s, and maybe even into the 40s sometime this week.

Such conditions call for a track with an equally cold basis, and Seal's breakthrough hit "Kiss from a Rose" certainly fits that bill. Its opening scene of "a greying tower alone on the sea" seems tailor-made for how I currently see my world, both on internal and external levels. From there, though, the song takes on a more mysterious and honestly sinister tone, as the love it describes becomes conflated with addiction, to the point that the two ideas are inseparable.

It's a shame that "Kiss from a Rose," like other 'movie songs,' is so tied to the film in which it is most prominently used. The song has so much more going for it than being on the soundtrack of the thoroughly underwhelming Batman Forever. Heck, that wasn't even the first movie in which it was used — though I thoroughly doubt anyone hears "Kiss from a Rose" and thinks, "Oh, yeah, that's the song from The NeverEnding Story III!" No, they see Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Nicole Kidman, and they often can't divorce the song from Batman. That isn't a problem for me, though, chiefly because I haven't seen the movie, which I would probably spend too much time discussing in this post had I seen it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I'm always struck by the starkness of how "Kiss from a Rose" begins, with Seal singing three-part acapella harmony. As I've discussed before with "Killing Me Softly With His Song", it takes serious guts to begin a track in such a manner, so exposed and potentially fragile — though Seal's delivery imbues a sense of confidence in the force behind it. When the three-part singing is supplemented by a fourth part, all the feelings from the first few seconds become even stronger. The subsequent introduction of the first instruments feels like a sweeping change, even though it occurs just eleven seconds into the song. That's probably in part because of the instruments themselves: the piano tends to carry a lot of emotional weight in a popular context, especially in the era of R&B in which this song lies; meanwhile, the oboe is a very rare sound in the pop sphere, and as such it evokes an orchestral flavor that carries significant weight despite the sound's lightness. This flavor is amplified throughout the song by a growing string arrangement.

The lyrics to "Kiss from a Rose" have been subject to many deciphering attempts over the years, the most prominent of which center around the intersection of love and addiction. Seal has notably remained mum on the matter, stating on in 2020, "I have avoided explaining these lyrics for over 25 years. I am not going to start doing it now." Fair enough, Seal, especially for a song whose mystique likely assists its popularity. What I can decipher is that the aforementioned opening image of "a graying tower alone on the sea" is a bleak depiction of loneliness, one which particularly resonates with me as I look out on the busy streets of Berkeley while the bars begin closing. Viewing this scene from my third-floor window in a quiet room (my roommate preceded me in falling asleep), I feel like I'm in the greying tower, especially in my currently despondent emotional state.

Following the opening line, the addiction-tinged language enters and becomes increasingly more prominent. "Love remained a drug that's the high and not the pill," reads the third line, the first to pivot toward that topic. The second verse contains more surface-level comparisons to addiction — "You remain my power, my pleasure, my pain (baby) / To me you're like a growing addiction that I can't deny" — but the pre-chorus stands out to me as the most prominent reference, despite its less literal connection to the topic. Unbeknownst to me until I read more into the lyrics, the snowing and the 'eyes becoming large' in the chorus is widely taken to be a reference to cocaine, cementing the addiction reading for many.

The chorus also fits such a reading well, as it explores the duality between love and addiction — or, perhaps, the addictive nature of love. The titular "kiss from a rose on the grey" is a bright spot in the narrator's lonely life. When Seal sings, "the more I get of you, the stranger it feels," the aforementioned duality is amplified: in its addictive nature, love can feel like an out-of-body experience, and so too can substance use. Whether the chorus (and the lyrics as a whole) hints more at love or addiction is up to each listener; I personally hear more of the former, especially in the chorus' ending: "And now that your rose is in bloom / A light hits the gloom on the grey." Here, love is represented as brightness and warmth, a much healthier reading than seen in prior lines. To me, that offers hope that the song describes more of an addiction-like love than an addiction itself.

In its duality and ambiguity, "Kiss from a Rose" remains one of the 90s' most fascinating hits. It's a song that sounds built for a film, but it also stands independently of its movie context as one of the most stirring songs in recent memory. Through the different ways it may be read, its narrator's ultimate ecstasy can be both satisfying and troubling, and while I hear it as more of a gratifying, long-awaited love, I know not all share in this reading.


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