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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Unknown Song" captures my present anxieties and questions, then tries to answer them

As the track oscillates between major and minor sections, I try to allay my fears. Do I succeed?

Today made me realize once more how lost and uncomfortable I feel in the current state of the world.

It still feels weird for me to follow a typical university class and life schedule amid a pandemic. Even with over 97% student vaccination (largely thanks to a mandate) and mask-wearing in all possible indoor and class spaces, something just doesn’t feel right. I always feel off-balance and constantly question myself, wondering if it’s right for me to carry on in this manner. I’m especially thinking this way because of how I thought a cold I recently got was much more, and how paranoid I was that I may have put my roommate, classmates, and friends in danger before I received negative test results.

Simultaneously, despite being back in Berkeley, I find myself pining more and more for online interaction with friends. As much as I love them, I also often hesitate to reach out because I don’t want to bother them and interrupt the life they’re living. I also sometimes doubt the sincerity of some of the responses I get, which is a horrible sort of self-talk, but one I’ve had in my head for the better part of a decade.

In trying to figure out a song that captures these anxieties and fears, I circled back to an English electronic track I first heard last May: “Unknown Song,” by Joe Goddard, from synth-pop/alt-dance band Hot Chip, and Hayden Thorpe, frontman of the bygone indie rock band Wild Beasts. In its melancholy verses, it expresses an attempt to find some sort of meaning and love in the world. The choruses offer a bit of hope, but when the verse progression returns I doubt the chorus’ truthfulness. Go Bears, I guess (a throwaway comment which seems slightly more fitting in realizing that the main colors in the lyric video are blue and yellow).

The opening of "Unknown Song" feels somewhat weighted, with a forward synth bass and heavy percussion. It also feels a bit haunting, as the voice-like synths add a sense of uneasiness through their uncanny, humanoid-but-clearly-not-human timbre. To me, the lead mid-range synth and the hi-hats are what create the song's groove through their syncopation; these elements don't offset the unease, but rather embrace it and incorporate it into an infectiously danceable rhythm and soundscape.

Hayden Thorpe’s lyrics are sparse, evoking his work with his former band Wild Beasts as he sings in his characteristic, otherworldly tenor. The first verse focuses on facing and working through the unknown, as highlighted by the lines “Unknown song / How the words go to this one?” I tend to at least smile a little bit when I hear that part, because it’s a sort of intentional irony that someone is singing those lines. At least there’s a little humor to be found in the darkness and confusion.

The mood begins to shift at the end of the verse, when Thorpe sings of his “killer intuition.” For the first time, we get the idea that the narrator has confidence in their ability to navigate the uncertainty of life. As the key shifts from C minor to the parallel C Major for the chorus, this faith is harmonically realized, right before the lyrics make a corresponding shift. By replacing “unknown” with “unspoken” in the chorus, Thorpe shifts the theme from uncertainty toward optimism and hope, in understanding feelings which have yet to be expressed.

After the major uplift of the chorus, the move back to the minor-key verse feels like a bit of a gut punch, and it at least momentarily casts doubt on what had just been sung. You can say you have "killer intuition" all you want, and that you understand the unspoken, but what if that’s all just a coping mechanism inside your head? This sort of talk and doubt is what often holds me back from doing the most and the best that I can, especially in more recent times. That's why I've had my guard up so much since I got back to Berkeley, both in person and offline. In constantly wondering if I'm doing enough and/or the best I can, both in terms of academics and safety, I become hyper-critical of my efforts and become unable to focus on the fun side of college and campus life, as well as the friendships I value away from campus. Hopefully I can turn a corner soon and be able to let myself enjoy the time I have left in this part of my life, because that's why I'm back here in Berkeley rather than taking my classes online from home. In the second verse and beyond, Thorpe's narrator switches from confusion and concern toward open-mindedness and healthy curiosity, and I hope to make this shift myself in the coming days and weeks as I remember how fortunate I am to be here, and how we're never meant or bound to know all the answers.


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