Red House Painters – Have You Forgotten
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
I don't usually take the “you” in second-person songs to be me. Just as I don't think the singer is necessarily the narrator when they sing “I,” it would be faintly ludicrous to think that a musician is trying to address some random listener miles away and years later. Red House Painters' “Have You Forgotten,” however, always catches me out. Drawing towards what was, in retrospect, the end of a prolonged period of solitude, I happened to find their Songs for a Blue Guitar in the local used record shop. I don't think I even played it that day. And then one particularly cloistered afternoon I decided to slip it on while doing the dishes. Pleasantries for two minutes, and then:
“Have you forgotten how to love yourself?”
Normally, that kind of question from a song would make me angry. It's so presumptuous, so maudlin, so New Age-y. Here I am, young and healthy, entering grad school, plenty of friends, basically happy and secure—have I forgotten to what? My knee-jerk response, seeing the question written down, would have been “of course I haven't, you sanctimonious jerk.” Maybe if I was out on the street or addicted to drugs or something I'd burst out weeping, the way you're clearly supposed to. Where does this guy get off?
And yet. What is so disarming, aside from the way the question is launched from the midst of a comforting lull of a song, is Mark Kozelek's half-colorless voice. As always it's utterly non-confrontational. At first the “you” of the verses was clearly not me, but as the chorus commences it's as if Kozelek turns away from the girl in the song to address the listener. The acoustic guitar lilts upwards just as Kozelek starts the line for the first time, and I suddenly stopped washing dishes; it was as if he'd just ripped off a scab. Something I didn't know was bothering me was suddenly exposed. The only reaction I could have in practice rather than in theory was “you know, maybe I have?”
That moment would have been enough, but he just keeps going. On a record where the closing refrain of “Make Like Paper” stretches the song from eight minutes to twelve it's no surprise that “Have You Forgotten” also takes its time. There are some more verses, but as the song winds down Kozelek just keeps singing the refrain, over and over. His delivery is not pitying or questioning so much as achingly, cruelly tender. Your protection is gone, and the way he so patiently and even compassionately explores the wound is one of the most wondrous things I've heard. The chorus of the song is clearly being sung to someone for whom “no” is not an honest answer, but Kozelek isn't chiding or judging. He's also not going to relent, and the kindness in his voice wears you down as aggression never could.
It wouldn't work if not for the way the music helps support the calm of Kozelek's question/assertion/reminder; “Have You Forgotten” never gets any more complex than that acoustic guitar figure, Kozelek's voice and some steel guitar flourish, but during that closing repetition it almost achieves hypnosis. Rather than numbing you, however, it gives Kozelek the space to let his small vocal alterations do their devastating work. When his voice dips at the end of the final line it has the impact of a hundred hoarsely shouted slogans.
I never get the impression Kozelek's talking about the really obvious cases in “Have You Forgotten,” but more the way that being alone or associating with a certain kind of person can make you slide into self-neglect in a way you never notice at the time. In the infinitely gentle way he tries to nudge you towards realizing this and doing something about it, "Have You Forgotten" is one of the most benevolent songs I know. It doesn't prejudge, it doesn't define and it doesn't prescribe. But if you have some unhappiness lurking in the back of your mind, “Have You Forgotten” can both set you on the path to a solution and bring you to your knees.