In their masterful and landmark single “Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League tells the story of a woman leaving her lover while the man begs her to stay. The premise worked so well that songwriter Philip Oakey revisited the tale three years later with “Louise,” the third single from their second album, Hysteria.
The song is simple, in D major, with a moving bassline that jumps an octave before settling back down, going at its own leisurely pace and repeating every four beats. Oakey’s robotic bass voice comes in early as two synthesizer chords ring slowly, starting on a G, not quite resolving, and then moving to a D to match the bass.
He tells the tale of the rejected boyfriend meeting the woman, Louise, in a chance encounter while the man is in a coffee shop:
When he saw her getting off the bus
It seemed to wipe away the years
Her face was older, just a little rough
But her eyes were still so clear
He drank his coffee and he hurried out
Across before she walked away
Then he approached her like a little child
Too scared for what he had to say
The refrain breaks musically from the repetitive verses by going into a minor key and changing chords every measure. It fits well with the change in the plot as the man finally confronts Louise after all these years:
Now should we part
Or stay a while
As if we were still lovers?”
The man’s bold move seems to work as the woman seems to forgive him for any wrongs he had committed in the past.
She took a moment just to recognise
The man she’d known so well before
And as he started to apologise
Lose any bitterness she bore
She gently put her finger on his lips
To let him know she understood
And with her suitcase standing on the floor
Embraced him like a lover would
He told Louise
“You look so good
It’s just you see
You make me feel
As if we were still lovers”
The bridge features a Steve-Winwood-like keyboard solo as Oakey breaks from his narrator role, speaking instead of singing, and giving this advice:
It’s not always true that time heals all wounds
There are wounds that you don’t wanna heal
The memories of something really good
Something truly real, that you never found again
And then the story continues, somewhat bittersweet, as the two part once again, but there is now closure.
And though they talked for just a little time
Before she said she had to go
He saw the meeting as a tiny sign
That told him all he had to know
And so Louise
Waved from the bus
And as she left
She gave that smile
As if they were still lovers
Finally! We know what has happened to the couple from “Don’t You Want Me.” True love reigns!
But wait: There’s more. All is not what it seems. In an interview, Oakey explained that the chance meeting and Louise’s willingness to forgive him are all in the man’s head. He sees his lost love again but believes that she still loves him.
“It’s about men thinking they can manipulate women when they can’t, even conning themselves that they have when they haven’t,” he explained. “In the last verse, the guy . . . still totally misunderstands everything. He still hasn’t caught on . . . He believes she still thinks he’s wonderful. He’s never ever understood. Like most men, because we’re a right load of berks.” (A “berk” is British slang for a foolish person.)
The song’s genius lies not only in the two-edged story that Oakey tells, but in the stark contrast music-wise to the exciting “Don’t You Want Me.” “Louise” is almost pedestrian in comparison, as if the spark is gone from the relationship and they now live rather mundane lives apart. Oakey’s deadpan voice adds to that sentiment.
But it’s the utter simplicity of the bass juxtaposed against the almost one-note melody that makes you look for changes. And when those changes come in the refrain, it’s a refreshing change. It becomes engrained in your head, and that’s the hallmark of a good pop song.”Louise” climbed all the way to No. 13 on the U.K. chart. A single was released in the U.S., but it didn’t chart. Robbie Williams covered the song in 2006, as did Tony Christie in 2008.