Josh Ritter – A Certain Light

Josh Ritter – “A Certain Light” (Live at WFUV)

Underneath the YouTube video I’ve linked to above, one of the commenters has written ‘I had to pull over to the side of the road when this appeared on the radio last night’ – which sums up perfectly the way I felt when I first heard ‘A Certain Light’.

I’m no music critic and have nothing intelligent to say about the gentle familiarity of the melody but I can and will rhapsodise about the lyrics, which I have transcribed below without recourse to a search engine (yes, really!).

Probably this song should be discussed in the context of the whole album (Beast In Its Tracks), which is quite openly a breaking-up record. But, to hell with it, ‘A Certain Light’ stands alone and captures with stunning simplicity the ambivalence of a person moving from one relationship to the next.

Josh, the narrator, is singing of his new lover, who has transformed the winter bleakness of his life with a smile that brings “springtime”, with all the promise that implies. He acknowledges this in a manner that couldn’t be any more terse:

“But it did.

And now it is.”

Does the simplicity of these statements reflect a stripped-down humility in the face of tremendous good fortune? Or is it grudging; wary; the non-committal grunt of a man forced to admit that he was in the wrong? It should be easy to call it, one way or another, but it isn’t.

That’s the breathtaking thing about this song. It is so easy to read it as a straightforward paean for a new lover that the conspicuous betrayal of the bridge can almost be ignored. But not quite. When narrator Josh sings “She only looks like you… when she holds her head just right…” there’s a private communion taking place between the narrator and his old lover that transcends all his new happiness in the quality of its intimacy.

It took me a while to get it. The chorus lulled me, until I realised that it was a direct address to a second person, and there’s that killer word.

Right.”

“When she holds her head just right.”

If I was the new lover I would be devastated. I would tear my chest apart to rip out my heart so that it could no longer love this person who watches me, waiting for me to hold my head “just right”, so that I can remind him of the old lover. “Right” is like the pea under the mattress; no matter how many soft and gentle words of gratitude and affection are layered over it, you cannot rest comfortable when “right” is the word that describes resemblance to the old love.

And that’s the genius of ‘A Certain Light’. Everyone who has been the new lover has most likely been the old lover too. And there is such comfort in the thought that old love endures, that it doesn’t “disappear like smoke”. There is fidelity in the midst of infidelity. Even as he betrays, the narrator is loyal. So what if he’s with her now?

I have agonised over this song. I worry that “right”; it’s like a wound I can’t help opening.

 

A Certain Light

My new lover

Sweet and kind

The kind of lover that one rarely finds

And I’m happy

For the first time

In a long time

Came along and

Opened up a door

And though I know I’ve been in love before

Oh I feel it

So much more

Than the last time

And she only looks like you

In a certain kind of light

When she holds her head just right

It’s been winter

For a while

The north wind’s wail cuts like a baby child’s

It was hard

To think her smile

Could bring springtime

But it did

Now it is

The green green grass has come up green and it’s

Feeling just

The way it did

The very first time

And she only looks like you

In a certain kind of light

When she holds her head just right

And any more

Would stretch the rhyme

So let me leave this where I started I’m

Just happy

For the first time

In a long time

In a long time

– Josh Ritter

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