The second I heard about new Finneas music, I got super excited. While I think Billie's stuff is genius and honestly mind blowing, it's always Finneas's solo projects that I find myself going back to and playing on repeat. This seems like the dawn of possibly a new album cycle. I wasn't sure what the expect from "What They'll Say About Us". With Finneas, you generally know it won't be a song of the summer contender, and it'll probably be more singer-songwriter. "What They'll Say About Us" delivers on that promise and also showcases Finneas's beautiful nuance in his production. The lyrics, though, have left me thinking. There's a twist at the end that I'm still not entirely sure if I heard it right.
At the beginning, it seems to be a song centered around both hope and legacy. Given that the world is on fire, a song about continuing through a darkness that seems indefinite is aptly timed. Originally, this song gave me serious "Don't Let It Break Your Heart" Louis Tomlinson vibes. In the first two verses and the chorus, Finneas acknowledges the struggle of deciding to continue pushing for positive change in the world. He talks about the exhaustion that surrounds it in the first verse. His voice is almost like a quiet lullaby as he sings, "You're tired now, lie down/I'll be waiting' to give you the good news/It might take patience/And when you wake up, it won't be over/So don't you give up". It's a reminder that fighting for the long haul requires rest because it won't pass quickly.
Then, in the chorus, it switches more towards the legacy half of the song's main theme. "We've got time to take the world/And make it better than it ever was/That's what they'll say about us". Again, it has a very close, intimate feeling while listening that you feel like he's speaking directly to you, though reading it broadly makes it seem like a reference to our entire generation. I like that the pervasive theme in a world where it feels like the buzzer is constantly ringing is that we haven't run out of time yet. While it boarders on possibly a bit cheesy and cliche, he quickly calls himself on it to loop back to that place of unending sincerity.
"It I say a cliche, it's cause I mean it/We can't walk away, we gotta get between it/And when you wake up, we'll grow together/So don't give up". The idea of sleep or being taken out of something for a while shows up stronger here. There's also the sense of importance that these issues can't be pushed aside anymore. On an instrumental note, I like how in the second verse, some soft percussion gets introduced which tightens the gravity of the song.
Then, in the bridge, everything builds to a peak. "I never said it would be easy/I'm never giving up, believe me/I used to think the pain would fade, but it never does". These lyrics are perfectly broad because they could apply tightly to two people facing personal struggle. It could apply to a generation of people fighting for justice, and it could easily translate to whatever personal pain your fighting through at the moment. I particularly like the final line of the bridge. Then there's an instrumental break that brings all the previous sounds in the song from piano to percussion to some background vocals mixed with a bit of sparse guitar to make this wall of dark sound that your brain almost recognizes simply as grief. There isn't much brightness in the backing of this song.
It resolves out of the bridge and strips all the way down to soft piano much like the arch of the production in Conan Gray's "The Story".
The outro reveals a new twist to the song that I didn't see coming. It returns to the original framework of the verse, but you start to realize that the sleep might be a coma and also there's a baby involved all the sudden? "You're tired now, lie down/I'll be waitin' to give you the good news/It might take patience/And if you don't wake up/I'll know you tried to/I wish you could see him/He looks just like you". The whole song, Finneas's voice, the production, and the lyrics, gave me chills the first time I heard it. And two songs come to mind to draw comparisons with that closing lyric. The first song I thought of when the track was over was "Sign of the Times" by Harry Styles. While the seven minute piano ballad is much more abstract, it's about a mother dying in childbirth telling her child to go on and do great things. "What They'll Say About Us" seems to come from a similar place of bringing life into a deeply dark and flawed world and trying to help them understand. The second song is "epiphany" from Taylor Swift's latest album, folklore.
This comparison came to me after getting some increased context on Finneas's writing process for the song and what inspired him. In a statement about the song, he wrote, "I wrote this song in June after spending the day at a protest in Downtown LA, filled with hope with the prospect that millions of people were coming together from all over the world to fight against institutionalized racism and inequality. During that time, I'd also been following Amanda Kloots as she documented her husband Nick Cordero's time in the ICU while in a coma after being admitted for COVID-19. Imagining her sitting by his side, waiting, hopeful for him to wake up, it got me thinking about the millions of people all over the world, who also have loved ones, parents, children and extended family members going through the same thing. Fighting this horrific virus. Some will overcome and wake up again, while others, tragically, may not. This song is dedicated to all who have had to endure this year. I hope the song can offer some sort of comfort to those who may need it." And I love that last line. I feel like the purpose of music going forward, and the music I'm turning to most now, are the songs that provide a bit of comfort. Whether it's acknowledging what I'm going through or simply telling me that it is possible to be okay again, I value those works the most.
Also, it is eye opening to tie together the social justice fight and the COVID-19 pandemic and the unending ebb and flow of loss and hope that we're all experiencing by the ton at the moment. Going back to "epiphany", Taylor did something similar. She wrote a song that tied together the horrors that her grandfather encountered at war with the horrors medical professionals are facing today to share her view on the impact of the COVID pandemic. You can tell these songs are born of similar places as they elaborate on the need for rest and to find understanding in the mess. There's an interesting parallel in the lines in Taylor's song when she sings, "Holds your hand through plastic now/"Doc, I think she's crashing out"/And some things you just can't speak about" to Finneas's "And if you wake up/I'll know you tried to/I wish you could see him/He looks just like you". It's two artists placing themselves in the shoes of other people, speaking about the devastation of COVID through the filter of another two outsider prospectives looking in at the disease. One as a medical professional, the other as a loved one just hoping they could wake up.
But they also both yearn for tiny glimpses of hope even when that feels impossible. "What They'll Say About Us" is more obviously uplifting as Finneas sings, "We've got time to take the world/And make it better than it ever was/That's what they'll say about us". He promises the fight isn't over yet. Whereas Taylor examines the ways that we keep pushing on in the day to day on a minute level. What saves our sanity in the hour gaps between horrifying news? "Only twenty minutes to sleep/But you dream of some epiphany/Just one single glimpse of relief/ To make some sense of what you've seen".
It will be interesting to reflect back on the music that has come into the world at this time; how we chose to capture the lyrical snapshots while still in the worst of the moment without the benefit of hindsight or knowing when we'll make it out. Mostly these songs are marked with tears and regret, but there is also so much continued hope for the day that the never ending train of tragedy finally departs. A lot of weight is given to that future time.
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