Just on the surface, the song falls clearly into the commercial category, because it sounds specifically produced to be a hit. It’s complete and encompassing slickness means that every note is played perfectly, there are no bum notes, the song is sung by a singer (Michael McDonald) with a professional level voice. There are several earmarks, in fact, of musical sophistication that puts this record well above the pop (or rock) standard: the key change from verse to chorus is a step and a half up; from chorus back to verse moves a step and a half down again. The song’s structure is also unconventional: two verses are fitted in before the first chorus. Thus, we get to 1:30 before the first chorus kicks in. The chorus, in pop, tends to hold the “hooks” that make listeners want to hear the song again. Because this is the case, it is risky to place the first chorus this far into the song. The song includes several jazzy chord voicings, and is oriented towards a kind of white funk, or what was called “blue-eyed soul” in the 60s. Musical mastery of this genre isn’t just competent; it’s outstanding. But if this were where the story ended, there would be no story. Simply, the lyrics achieve out and out strangeness by their bleak insistence on telling a story of pointlessness and indifference. If you don’t listen closely, it would be easy to mistake this for another piece of jazzed-up pop funk. As is, the juxtaposition of music and lyrics is startlingly anomalous.
McDonald begins the song, “He came from somewhere back in her long ago/ The sentimental fool don’t see/ Trying hard to recreate what was yet to be created/ once in her life.” In other, the song is written in the third person, but it is difficult not to feel that the singer/narrator is also the “he.” What we immediately notice is the discrepancy of perception: this man is forcing a confrontation with a woman from his past. He thinks he’s recreating for her the love affair they once had; but, in fact, there was no love affair. In other words, he’s a slave to lies and delusions. On the other hand, if the narrator is “he,” he is also fiercely judgmental in regards to himself. That’s why he calls himself, without coyness, a “sentimental fool.” This is psychological war in every direction. This is borne out by his recollection of the encounter itself: “She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale/ Never coming near what he wanted to say/ Only to realize it never really was.” The woman’s smile isn’t natural; she has to “muster” it. She’s giving him her attention, but merely humoring him. As this happens, he has the terrible realization (which evidently didn’t occur to him before) that what he’s saying is hot air. Not only is it based on nothing, he’s allowed himself to be drawn in by his own powers of self-mystification. But the sad part is that we are only one minute into a song that invites us to mishear it; that is packaged in such a way that these vignettes are juxtaposed with a surface that, however sophisticated, borders on treacle. The bridge further elaborates, propels things forward by both giving us background and completing the encounter: “She had a place in his life/ He never made her think twice/ As she rises to her apology/ Anybody else would surely know/ He’s watching her go.” The basic gist is that, even as she’s blowing him off, he insists to himself that his lies aren’t lies. Maybe it’s because she’s at least courteous.
Now, we finally get to the chorus, and a compressed philosophy lesson: “But what a fool believes he sees/ No wise man has the power to reason away.” It’s not the fool/protagonist seeing something; to see implies perceiving a reality; it’s the fool creating a reality that doesn’t exist. What’s implied in these two lines is a stern judgment of the human race; that fools have and will always be more powerful than the wise. Lies and delusions are more compelling than the truth; thus, they are more powerful. Reason is a weak tool because reality is too unrewarding. Or, because “What seems to be/ Is always better than nothing.” That’s how this narrator perceives reality: a nothingness. This chorus out-Sister Lovers Sister Lovers. This leads to the climax/anti-climax of the entire piece, which links the chorus to the next verse: “And nothing at all keeps sending him/ Somewhere back in her long ago.” In other words, for all that a psychological war is taking place, it is perceived to be utterly and completely pointless. That’s nihilism, alright: not only pointless but empty, devoid of meaning, substance, and consequence. And circular: a chain of mesh that never quite lets you out, and wraps around you from every side at each attempted escape. For all that many millions of listeners have heard this song, how many of them have perceived these meanings and anti-meanings? The third verse delivers little new information, and then the bridge and chorus repeat. The song ends on a fade-out, as chirpy and seemingly innocuous as ever.
A song like “What a Fool Believes” proves several points at once: that real substance can be delivered in pop song lyrics, that commercial rock can be as artistically viable as indie, and that it is possible for a song to be enormously popular without anyone noticing the first thing about it. This last point is perhaps the most salient; the idea that pop culture artifacts, in their day, do not inspire real critical appraisal. This is a shame. Pop culture audiences dwell on surfaces; if depths have ever been for the masses, they are not in 2011. However, where there is substance, there is hope: and that if people can get past a surface deemed either “cool” or “uncool,” it might make them stop and think about how to navigate the choppy waters of the Western world during a time of transition and turmoil.
Adam Fieled, 2011