Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: We Just Disagree

Am I going soft? My love for this song might indicate that I am indeed losing my edge. But I can still rant about inane music and presidential candidates alike with equal vim and vigor. So I don't think it's about going soft, but rather about life changing and me changing along with it. Since having kids, my wife and I have occasionally listened to a 1970s soft rock channel on Pandora during dinner. It helps keep things mellow when the kids are refusing food or playing with food or throwing food. One song that keeps cropping up is "We Just Disagree," written by Jim Krueger and a late 1970s hit for Traffic's original guitarist Dave Mason. Although I heard the song countless times on the radio as a kid, I didn't know who Dave Mason was until I discovered Traffic as a teenager. Traffic became one of the few psych-rock groups I still love today (Pink Floyd being another), while "We Just Disagree" sort of faded out of memory. But back in the 1980s the song was a radio staple. Bob Dylan performed it during his 1980-81 tour. It may have even been played at a junior high dance or two, although I suppose dancing with your sweetheart to it would be a downer. It's about two people who once shared a love but have since drifted apart. Hearing it again recently, I'm struck by how heartbreaking it is, which is something I must have recognized in some vague way as a child. Even then, before I ever understood what it felt like to experience a relationship (either romantic or platonic) falling apart, I felt the very real sense of sadness in the song. It was clearly a song for adults, but it works so well that even a child can grasp its bittersweet message.

These days "We Just Disagree" is most often heard on the dreaded soft rock radio or streaming stations. You likely sneer at these stations. It would be safe to say that I do my share of sneering at soft rock too. The thing is, the older you get, the more soft rock just makes sense sometimes. I used to dismiss Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne, only to fall completely in love with their music in the last decade. I'll now argue their merits with anyone who doubts them. Now don't panic: the gentle sounds of soft rock will never dethrone the urgency and irony of punk rock and new wave for me. But I'm discovering that in my dotage, soft rock sometimes speaks to the part of me that just wants to kick back after a long hard day and let the softsational sounds roll over me like a wave. Surely there's no crime in that, right? And I still can't stand the Eagles or Carol King, among other bastions of soft rock. But go back and listen to some of Lindsey Buckingham's songs with Fleetwood Mac, like "I Know I'm Not Wrong" and "Not That Funny" and tell me they don't share a defiantly challenging spirit with supposedly edgier music of that era.

In moving from young adulthood into middle age (very early middle age, in my case, ahem), songs like "We Just Disagree" take on a bit more significance. It may sound dated now to modern ears, but it's solidly in the country rock vein that was huge back then. And the lyrics still hold up, no question. Hearing Mason sing about how he and his former partner no longer see eye to eye is a reminder of just how complicated relationships can be: "there ain't no good guy/there ain't no bad guy/there's only you and me/ and we just disagree." The song's couple have come to the sad realization that what they had has been lost and they can't get it back. They have different, and incompatible, needs now. At one point Mason asks "have you got a place to stay?" and then immediately questions why he should care. That's the thing about building a life with someone: you can't simply stop caring when the relationship ends. I only had to experience this fleetingly as a young man and I'm fully aware of how fortunate that makes me. "We Just Disagree" reminds us that things can go wrong even if neither person is to blame. The "end of our love song" is a fear that anyone can relate to. We've all seen people like the couple in the song, ones who seemed perfect together but simply couldn't make it last. The song might now be considered soft rock, but its message has always been pretty heavy, at least.

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