Friday, December 26, 2008

On New Order's "Run"

"Answer me," begins New Order's "Run," the song that threaded itself through my head during my last months at my old job. "Why won't you answer me?"

I liked New Order as a teenager; 1989's Technique (on which "Run" makes its home) was the last album of theirs to hold my interest. Now that song was in heavy mental rotation, as it never had been before, outlasting all the theoretically more exciting youngbloods. I want to find out why.

In 2006, things were going downhill at the office and everyone knew it. People were jumping ship at alarming rates; more alarming was the number forced to jump. "Run" isn't quite an office song—not the way Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" ("I've got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all") or the Modern Lovers' "Government Center" ("a lotta lotta lotta nice desks and chairs, uh huh!") are explicitly about the joys and terrors of the workaday word.

But "Run" was my theme song, and I didn't even know what it meant. It has the virtue of being intimate yet ambiguous, and the music is a thrilling mix of guitars and machines. Even the title is up for grabs: a directive to flee, or simply to hit the treadmill? The lyrics are among the most potent in the New Order canon, admittedly a songbook in which much sounds tossed off (a trait I admire).

Maybe it takes fifteen years of not hearing the song—of being swept along by the airtight weave, or not thinking about it at all—but "Run," I'm realizing, is a horror story of sorts, an incident of amnesia in the corridors of power: "I don't know what day it is or who I'm talking to." It's not far from there to the land of This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife. "I can't recall the day that I last spoke to you." A guitar figure just this side of sour tears through it all again and again. There is tremendous violence—and freedom—in this line: "You work your way to the top of the world/Then you break your life in two."

The epigraph to Personal Days comes from "Run"; that last couplet seemed appropriate for a book in which the brutality of downsizing was dramatized in the broken structure itself—the voice changing, dramatically, twice.

The penultimate verse seems to hold a measure of hope—"I haven't got a single problem now that I'm with you"—but do we believe the speaker? (The last line, tellingly, is "What do you want me to believe?")

I'm getting the sinking feeling that the singer is talking to a ghost—or the singer is a ghost, just like in New Order's story-song "Love Vigilantes."

Without giving too much of Personal Days away, I'll just say that the idea of the ghost in the machine is significant, if not central to the novel. Quick sample from the book: "Our machines know more than we do, Pru thinks. Even their deficiencies and failures are instructive...."

New thought about the title: Is "Run" a command for a computer—or from one? And what is the program?

—from Book Notes at Largehearted Boy, July 2, 2008


Video directed by Robert Frank:

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