Emotional responses to music do not depend on having any understanding of what the song is supposed to be about. In many cases it can happen even if you don’t understand the language at all and there are instrumentals that can evoke very specific feelings. Sometimes we do understand the language but the lyrics are just cryptic enough to somehow put you in a very vivid, if mysterious frame of mind. You won’t know what the original intent of the song is, but it won’t matter, and really it hardly ever does. When art manages to connect with something universal, while doing something that is likely very specific, it’s breathtaking, but when it does this and maintains a certain air of mystery that allows you to make it wholly your own, we’re in a transcendent space altogether. For me, a clear example of this is Tanya Donelly’s “Manna” off her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs.
I fell in love with this song the instant I heard it, 17 years ago. It opens with a quiet whistling wind like sound that leads to a simple acoustic guitar chord progression, complete with fret noise that seems to suggests weariness. The song instantly transports me to another room and though I’m not entirely sure what is in that room, I know it’s white and there is a large open window with white lace drapes, letting the light shine through. And although the room is comfortable and providing some sort of relief, there’s a sense of sadness in it, or perhaps just melancholy. It might be grief. But tt might not be. It might just be intense love that somehow makes one weep at the sheer beauty of life. Either way, Tanya says she is “here now and I’m staying put, for reasons, my reasons” and I’m moved by her voice and presence. And she never tells us her reasons, which only helps this song become yours as you fill in your own reasons. Is this a deathbed she’s sitting next to? If so, whose? I don’t know, but it affects me in a very deep way that I cannot explain.
Once the chorus kicked in that first time I heard this song, and every time since, I was blasted with nostalgia that I could not put my finger on but also could not deny or avoid in any way. That marching snare drum and cello and the melody of Tanya’s angelic voice reminded me of something from my childhood. Over the years I’ve determined that it somehow brings to mind an artist my parents used to play when I was a kid, Demis Roussos. But try as I might, there’s no one specific song that I can say directly connects. It could be several, from “Goodbye My Love, Goodbye” to “Morir Al Lado De Mi Amor” or even his cover of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne a L’amour.” Interestingly, each one of those could also relate to “Manna” thematically, but I would not have known that from hearing them as a child.
I’ve always leaned towards thinking this song was about someone who comes to visit a dying loved one. Perhaps that’s because I took the lyric “and when I hold you like tomorrow you might die, well, that’s because you might, but I’m here now and I’m staying put for reasons my heart knows” literally. But over the years, I’ve also come to appreciate the preciousness of life to the point that I think I understand that we are always dying and now I think that’s what the song is about. And while that may be morbid, it’s also quite beautiful and touching to accept it so that you can fully love someone in the moment. What’s truly amazing to me is that while that idea comes through so clearly, there are verses about a “milky whiteness” that leave me scratching my head. Could the song be about trying to conceive a child? It’s likely this song is about something very specific in Tanya’s life, but I couldn’t care less to pry into what’s behind it because It’s now about so much more than what she might have intended that I think she succeeded, regardless. It’s a perfect song.