An Analysis of Metaphors
Wilco’s 2002 track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” from the album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is one of the band’s finest accomplishments in almost every way. Musically, its dark textures, dissonant piano, and aloof singing lend it a large portion of its tone; however, the song’s greatest strength lies in its lyrics and the metaphors Jeff Tweedy utilizes to describe the many stages of an unhealthy relationship. The song is structured in a repeated verse structure, meaning the song lacks a chorus of bridge and consists entirely of four line stanzas which follow the same musical pattern; each individual verse describes a different facet of the dying relationship Tweedy characterizes in a lyrically unique and metaphorically ripe manner.
The song’s first verse begins with the line “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue.” These first two lines describe the speaker’s side of the relationship by characterizing him as both a drunk and a dodgy boyfriend. The description of an “aquarium drinker” speaks mainly to the vast volume of alcohol the speaker consumes; while not literally an aquarium’s amount of drink, the listener can infer that the amount of alcohol consumed is copious. The speaker goes on to describe the effects the drink has on his relationship by singing that he “assassin(s) down the avenue.” This metaphor is meant to further characterize the speaker as a master of avoiding both his lover and his responsibilities in the relationship as a result of his drinking. However, the metaphorical assassin is going down an avenue or a wide-open street in a city. This insinuates that, although the speaker thinks he is being stealthy, his flaws are very apparent to anyone and everyone around him.
The next verse begins to describe interactions between the speaker and his lover with the lines “Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning / Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers.” The metaphor of tongue-tied lightning details an inferred verbal war between the two lovers possibly triggered by the speaker’s drinking. The following line uses simile to let the listener know that ignorant sex is the solution to the fighting; essentially, the speaker is attempting to avoid battles by using sex to ignore the problems and appease his lover. This, however, is followed by a candid moment in which the speaker says “This is not a joke so please stop smiling / What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?” which leads the listener to believe that the meaningless sex might be less of an argument-stopper and more of a plea for peace from the pain he feels in the relationship.
As the song progresses, some of the metaphors become even more outlandish to parallel the increasing amount of alcohol and anger flowing through the singer’s system. Eventually, he sings “I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn / You’re quiet a quiet domino, bury me now.” This verse is metaphorically rich as the speaker begins by describing the early, quiet hours of the morning as the “Bible-black predawn” which confers a sort of holiness to those odd hours; it is here that the speaker believes he and his lover can find solace. He then goes on to describe his lover for the first time in the song by calling her a “quiet domino.” This metaphor works particularly well because it simultaneously reflects the speaker’s outlandish behavior while perfectly encapsulating the lover’s mentality. Basically, the speaker sees the lover as someone who is breaking apart and falling at increasing speed just like a chain of dominoes. However, the kicker is that she is doing it quietly; she is torn up inside but refuses to let anyone know or attempt to help her. The drunk speaker then goes on to offer his advice by advising her to “take off [her] band-aid because [he doesn’t] believe in touchdowns” which is a nearly indecipherable metaphor reflecting the speaker’s absurdity. However, it is possible that the speaker means to imply that his lover needs to heal her wounds, and that the speaker does not believe his relationship is a competition. Still, the sheer outlandishness of the metaphor functions extremely well in detailing the rampant miscommunication that is inferably going on between the two.
Eventually, the metaphors stop altogether as the speaker has a bizarre moment of clarity in the midst of his drunken stupor. The singer repeats the phrase “I am trying to break your heart” and then interjects “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy” which caps off his rant in spectacular fashion. What happens here is that the speaker abandons all of his pretense and speaks to his alienated lover directly. He tells her plainly that all of his antics and drunken rage has been nothing but an attempt to break her down and tear her apart. However, this is not all. He goes on to cap it off by telling her that it has been very easy for him to do this, and he reveals his inability to love her truly and completely.
By utilizing a large number of varied and bizarre metaphors over the course of the song, Jeff Tweedy is able to make the ultimate revelation of the speaker’s malicious intent infinitely more biting, cynical, and devastating. Essentially, the detached, aloof metaphors create a distraction which ultimately serves as a foil to the bare-bones truth the speaker spills at the song’s end. However, immediately following this revelation, the singer goes right back into his tirade of absurd metaphors with the lines “Disposable Dixie cup drinking / I assassin down the avenue” where he intentionally repeats a line from the first verse in order to display the cyclical nature of this toxic, destructive relationship. In short, metaphor is Tweedy’s bait and directness is his weapon.