A few weeks ago, I discovered Sleater-Kinney. I’m about fifteen years too late, but there’s never been a more perfect time than now. I’m not sure where the riot grrrl movement was in my musical sphere when I was in high school — somewhere far off the radar, evidently. Strangely, but perhaps not uniquely in this day and age, I came upon them thanks to Carrie Brownstein’s acting career. What might be more original, though, is that I first saw her in Transparent. Only after looking her up did I find out she’s the other half of the duo that created Portlandia, along with Fred Armisen. I’ve since binged the majority of that show, which has mutated into the fabric of my being as much as any other show I’ve seen. It’s really good and hits me in a way that wouldn’t have been nearly as notable a few years ago, but that’s a separate topic entirely.
I don’t write about bands or specific songs very often, especially so immediately after their discovery, which means this is special to me in some way. I could probably spin out something verbose about Sleater-Kinney, even having only listened to them for a few weeks now, but the reason I’m inspired to write now is one song, perhaps their most popular, perhaps their best: “Jumpers.”
I can’t think of a song that’s had more instant of an impact on me in both lyrical content and music, but in an almost entirely non-overlapping matter. Let me explain:
The song begins with a pair of guitars, the lead playing upstroked open fifths on B as the other gives rhythm and bass E notes, drums riding away in the background. It’s nothing too remarkable. The lyrics are sung thusly:
“I spend the afternoon in cars, I sit in traffic jams for hours.” — This applies to me, to an extent. My current commute is far better than it used to be, but once upon a time I did just this on many an occasion. The chord progresses from E to G to A, adding a twist of dissonance as the open B fifths continue above it.
“Don’t push me I am not okay.” — Sometimes I don’t feel okay. I’ve been through a lot in the last year, lots of turmoil and change. I’m not stressed to the point of breaking though. Currently, I’m okay.
“The sky is blue most every day.” — Fact.
“The lemons grow like tumors; they are tiny suns infused with sour.” — Also fact. Not much to dispute here.
This is where the chorus hits and the song abruptly shifts for the first time. The drums alter into a more percussive, tom-laden riff and the guitars cease for a few bars.
“Lonely as a cloud…” — Sometimes. Living in the big city hasn’t changed that a whole lot… yet.
“…in the Golden State.” — Since I’ve moved to California, I’ve been out of state for no more than 100 days, or about 13% of the time. So, I’m almost always in the Golden State.
“The coldest winter that I ever saw was the summer that I spent.” — This is the establishing shot of the song, to use a film industry term, fixing its setting in San Francisco, my current city of residence. Hammer, meet nail.
Now, this line is based on a quote which is as follows: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I despise this quote, as it’s often misattributed to Mark Twain by the uninformed masses and, when you think about it, doesn’t really even make any sense. I haven’t lived through an entire San Francisco summer yet, however I can tell you, it’s not cold. At times, yes, it’s colder than winter in San Francisco. But the coldest ever? Come on. You can find a colder winter than San Francisco Summer if you simply step outside of the Bay Area. But, to a non-literal reader, I suppose the point is that San Francisco is cold in the summer. That is true, as it has the lowest mean, maximum, and minimum temperatures for June, July, and August among major US cities. I maintain, it’s still a dumb quote for a knob talking about SF to spout off without thinking.
We return to the opening riff and instrumentation, a wobbling reverb effect added.
“The only substance is the fog and it hides all that has gone wrong. Can’t see a thing inside the maze.” — Mental fog, San Francisco fog. It’s blue almost every day; when it’s not, it’s probably foggy, especially in the mornings and nights. If it hasn’t made itself clear, this is song is about a depressed person.
“There is a bridge adored and famed, the golden spine of engineering whose back is heavy with my weight.” — The Golden Gate Bridge, of course. This is also one of the only songs I can think of offhand that uses the word “engineering” in its lyrics, so plus for that.
Return to chorus, as described above. Only this time, it leads into what might just be the best middle section of a song in existence. That might sound hyperbolic, yet it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. If you’ve already gotten there by the time you read this, you’re already a step ahead of where I was the first time I listened to “Jumpers.” Personally, I was underwhelmed by the music in comparison to the rave reviews it had gotten upon my research into the band. It wasn’t until the 2-minute mark that its punch of awesomeness was delivered, right into my music-loving soul.
The energy in the guitar riff is palpable. The drums crash and furiously speed up. Eight impactful bars of pure auditory bliss. I can’t listen to them without involuntarily reacting in some way, be it air-drumming, head-nodding, or rocking out like the band in the video. I’ll often return to this point in the song after it’s over, again and again and again. But, the rest of the bridge first, which becomes even more stirring as it moves forward.
Once the riff ends, it shuttles off into a emptier musical space with driving bass-laden guitar, quick eighth drums with high-energy fills, and lightly fluttering guitar. The chords progress downwards as the song pushes itself forward with aplomb. It’s on its own course now. E, D, A, G. The vocals switch over to Carrie Brownstein’s court, who urgently chirps these lines:
“Be still this old heart, be still this old skin. Drink your last drink, sin your last sin.
Sing your last song about the beginning, sing it out loud so the people can hear.
A few days ago I was having a great day. It was productive at work; I felt accomplished. I spent some time mingling with friends, and I had a relaxing evening ahead of me. I put this song into my playlist for part of my commute home. The frisson of the 2-minute shift combined with my already elevated emotions, albeit good ones, from the day overloaded me. These words are powerful, the internal monologue about a person who’s about to end it all. I rocked along to the guitar riff, as described above, but when the lyrics hit, I felt choked up. Not like, in a sad way, but just overcome with a flood of feelings. It’s hard to describe.
“Be still this sad day, be still this sad year. Hope your last hope, fear you last fear.
You’re not the only one, you’re not the only one, you’re not the only one, you’re not the only one.
If you haven’t felt anything yet, you might now. The end is approaching for this protagonist, and the fact that so much of this song so far has hit me on a personal level, it’s hard for me not to project myself into their headspace. It feels like I’m the one going through all of this and it affects me profoundly. I conjure images of despair, my mind’s eye turns toward the bridge and thoughts of oblivion.
The riff at its conclusion distorts and fades off into a quiet place, after the turmoil and anguish of the pained lyrics and chaotic, bi-polar music. Only single guitar notes, softly chugging rhythm, and a simple ride cymbal, snare combo remain.
“My falling shape will draw a line between the blue of sea and sky.
I’m not a bird, I’m not a plane.”
A powerful image. From afar, all I see is a speck floating down from the orange structure, through the blue sky, into the blue bay water, the majestic Pacific beyond.
“I took a taxi to the gate, I will not go to school again.” — The act of someone who has no intention to return. I don’t relate to the reference to school, however that only makes this song more tragic. It ends with this incredible lyric:
“Four seconds was the longest wait.” — That’s how long it takes, roughly, for an object to fall from the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge into the water below. From the perspective of the narrator… holy crap.
It’s repeated over and over and over and over with growing intensity until the crescendo ends, appropriately, with a crash symbol and a lingering guitar tone.
“Jumpers” is terribly sad, but delivered in such a way to demand repeat listens, especially from the mid-point onward. There are few times where I don’t rewind back to that spot at its end. It is just that good.
The Golden Gate Bridge is an awesome structure. I can see it a very short walk from my apartment and it never fails to affect me. My life is good and I absolutely love being alive. But, this song. It’s so effective at putting me into the shoes of this individual. I don’t think I could ever do what they do — it’s the uncertainty of that that scares me. I don’t think I could ever do it, but I’m not sure that I couldn’t. I’m terrified of falling from heights and I have a fearful respect for the ocean. There’s just something beautifully haunting about it. L’appel du vide.
It’s a perspective that crosses my mind on the most intrusive of occasions, but it’s one that will never come to pass. The vicarious experience of this song, combined with the absolutely fantastic music, is a synergy that delivers a punch to the gut, a smack to the mind, and a vision of the unthinkable.
I’m going to see Sleater-Kinney tomorrow night in San Francisco. This song will be played just before the encore. I might not be able to contain myself.