“In a little while from now, if I’m not feeling any less sour”, Gilbert O’Sullivan relates, in the most chirpy of clipped tones, “I promise myself to treat myself. And visit a nearby tower.” Oh, well – not the most exciting of field trips, but anyone who refers to their own mood as being ‘sour’ would probably enjoy a nice tower visit. Oh no, wait. The verse continues, and he is planning to jump from that tower – throw himself off, actually, as if taking agency completely away from his action. Moreso, this is in an effort to show people the effects of being stood up at your own wedding – “left shattered”. He recalls the pitying whispers at the church, the day before when he was happy. The tower visit seems to be both a desperate demonstration of his angst, and a very serious plan to end his lonely suffering.
Oddly, this snappily depressing song sat at number one in America for six weeks in 1972, and was the fifth most-played song on radio throughout the entire decade. This was the ’70s, when radios were more important to cars then mufflers, and the format was the main portal to new music for teenagers. Kinda like MySpace is these days.
‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ is darkly compelling for reasons aside from the subject matter. Firstly, there’s Gilbert himself, looking like a diet Bee Gee beamed in from some Irish dancehall recital we shouldn’t have access to. There’s the jaunty music, which sounds closer to the theme from a ’70s kitchen-sink drama shown in reruns on the BBC between ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘Are You Being Served?’ than a US #1 single about death and loneliness. Most distressing of all is his honeyed voice, and the thoroughly removed way in which O’Sullivan relates these horrible, personal tales, including the death of both his parents which he recites as if a bus route.
He rejects the idea of God, he is stood up at his own wedding, he plans his own suicide – all while cheerfully bashing out this tune on a grand piano – stately strings his only companion. He seems numb, either by grief or hypnosis, and coupled with the above creepy, empty clip, the effect is doubled. It reminds me of the weird DHARMA Initiative videos from ‘Lost’ in a way that I cannot put my finger on but which involves the feeling of some found relic from an ancient, warped civilisation.
Each verse ends with the resignation that he is alone again, naturally – as if any intervening happiness or companionship over the years has been marred by his knowledge of its impermanence. It doesn’t mean he is thrilled by this, either, just that wishing for anything above the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seems foolish to him. He is destined to be alone, and it’s his natural state.
Gilbert saves the true darkness of the song until the final verse. There’s an ornate musical break in order to deepen the final blow, then he details his father’s passing with all the glassy sadness he can muster. Then his attention turns to his mother.
And at sixty-five years old
My mother, God rest her soul
Couldn’t understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Brutal. But it gets worse. The idea of starting over without the love of her life is too much, and so, even with her son’s love, she gives up.
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken
And when she passed away
I cried and cried all day
Alone again, naturally
Gulp! Did she kill herself, or simply give up on life? Despite the details, the results are the same, and Gilbert remains naturally, inevitably alone… again. Christ, this is bleak stuff. Where’s a tower when you need one?