Thirteen by Ben Kweller
Performed and written by Ben Kweller.
You can listen to the original recording here and buy the song at iTunes here. “Thirteen” appeared on the self-titled album, Ben Kweller, released in 2006. You can buy the album at iTunes here. Click here for a live version performed with guitar, not piano. Click here for a live version performed with piano.
This mesmerizing love song rides near stream-of-conscious lyrics made striking by the piano and the quiet insistence of the vocal performance. Kweller defies normal song structure – there is no chorus; instead, he relies on three line verses bursting with images and thoughts and the piano’s rhythm to carry us forward. The effect is like closing one’s eyes and watching scenes from a relationship roll past. The lyrics speak of joy, the images spark images of a world opening up and made more vibrant by the relationship, yet the voice and piano convey a poignancy and sadness. Perhaps the tenderness arises from recognizing how fragile a relationship can be, perhaps from a period apart. It is the underling tension between the music and lyrics that make the song so affecting.
In an interview, Kweller has said the title comes from the date he married his long-time girlfriend, Liz Smith, and the song is peppered with references to their relationship (e.g., the necklace once worn by her mother, the phone calls on which they built the relationship, etc.). Yet the song remains accessible to all listeners.
The lyrics touch on the large and the small, the profound and the mundane, to express the totality of the relationship.
We’ve been in the rain
We’ve been on the mountain
We’ve been round the fire
In fancy hotels
Drank water from farm wells
We sang with the choir
While the references to rain, mountain and fire maybe be generic, the juxtaposition of the “fancy hotels” and “water from farm wells” generate a sense of the range the relationship travels. The sparseness works as we have all we need to see: a couple dressed for the fancy hotel, breathing the formal air, and then the clear water of the farm well.
As he does at key points in the song, Kweller zeroes in on tender moments, made palpable by the word selection and the intimacy of his singing.
I kissed your dry lips
We jumped off the high cliffs
And splashed down below
Skin to skin
In the salty river
Made love in the shadow
We can nearly taste the salty skin and envision the erotic images of flesh on flesh and beading water, without the vulgarity of specifics. A few verses later, he captures more frenetic physicality described with a wry bluntness:
We danced in the moonlight at midnight
We pressed against back doors and wooden floors
And you never faked it
The song, while containing autobiographic bits, does not sink into the obscurity of his personal life. In an interview, Kweller told how he met his future wife on the front porch of a mutual friend’s house. She was leaving for a road trip and had agreed to stop by his family home in Texas. During the intervening days, they spoke to each other on the phone almost daily and their relationship budded in those conversations. That experience yielded these lines:
We met on the front porch
Fell in love on the phone
Without the physical wreck
It is a young love and the common experience seen through fresh eyes, that rush to the phone, the physical presence of the voice, the pleasure in the back and forth about the day. We know about the desire for the other, yet in retrospect, he recognizes that the lack of the physical can enable the relationship to grow.
The next verse touches on another biographic reference, when his girlfriend gave his the necklace that her mother had worn; her mother had died when the girlfriend was a child. Kweller does not allow the song to dip into the melodramatic. His lines maintain a directness and simplicity in keeping with the frankness of the whole song:
You gave me the necklace
That used to hang
Around your mothers neck
No need to prove how much the necklace meant; we understand in the specificity of these three lines.
The relationship touches on the most profound issues and the near banal:
We questioned religions
Gave bread to the pigeons
We learned how to pray
Note how the word bread – which carries so much religious meaning – links the first two opening lines. Yet the relationship provides a new sense of the world (and God?) and a new sense of connection, thus the lines, “We learned how to prey,” as if anything said before was insufficient.
A few verses later, Kweller sings about the wild fluctuations we experience in early love, when passions run wild:
Had passionate makeouts
With passionate freakouts
We built this world of our own
The song closes with a stark verse that speaks to both the hope and desolation of love:
It was in the back of a taxi
When you told me you loved me
And that I wasn’t alone
The piano builds to the line “you told me you loved me” and then a pause and we hear the final line trailing off, the piano disappearing, so we are left with only Kweller’s voice, “and that I wasn’t alone.” The lyrics suggest the triumph of love, yet the music suggests something else, for Kweller ends the song alone, left with his vulnerability and need for this love. As the piano and his voices fade away, Kweller conveys a sense of awe at the love he has found.
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After living in Brooklyn for many years, Ben Kweller has returned to his native Texas. Only 28 years old, he’s been in the music business for over a dozen years. He started playing a band called Radish, before going solo. He received support and help from Evan Dando of the Lemonheads and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in getting his solo career off the ground. To find tour dates and updates, you can check his website or Facebook page. You can find a bevy of videos posted on YouTube by Kweller by clicking here.