(A Sad Song)
At first listen, the Beatles‘ “For No One” dazzles you with its musical brilliance: A descending bass line a la “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with short staccatoed eighth notes on a clavichord. The bridge is purely classical; arpeggioed sixteenth notes on a piano, sounding like a Bach piece. It’s Paul McCartney at his creative peak: music so lovely, I played it for my newborn daughters so they could hear perfect music at the earliest possible moment.
But I’ve never listened closely to the words, which paint a totally different picture. McCartney wrote it on holiday with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Things weren’t going well, and he locked himself in the bathroom and penned the words to the song:
The day breaks, your mind aches
You find that all her words of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you
The song paints a picture of a relationship that is dead; the two are going through the motions, with no real connection anymore. McCartney admits that he still needs her and wants her, but is in denial, even when she says that her love for him is dead.
You stay home, she goes out
She says that long ago she knew someone but now he’s gone
She doesn’t need him
Cried for No One
McCartney’s vocal performance is somewhat flat and unemotional — something I had noticed before but hadn’t really thought about. But after reading the lyrics closely, I found that his performance matches the relationship; he is numb to any more pain. He is emotionally spent, and in the song, he simply, almost matter-of-factly, explains the situation.
And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind her tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years
About halfway through the song, a French horn takes over the verse, playing an almost ad-libbed melody that’s almost sunny — a contradiction to the mood McCartney sets for the song. But juxtaposed against it, the instrumental takes on a bittersweet, poignant tone as it moves into the minor key bridge.
The song’s original title was called “Why Did It Die?” and according to Alan W. Pollack, early versions of the song had verses that alluded to finding some way to fix the relationship:
Why did it die?
You’d like to know.
Cry and blame her
You’re too late
As you’re deciding why the wrong one wins, the end begins
And you will lose her
Why did it die?
I’d like to know.
Try to save it
You want her
You need (love) her
So make her see that you believe it may work and some day
You need each other
The finished song, by contrast, is almost passive aggressive, with each person going through the motions of their daily lives but both knowing that it’s over. He tells it like it is, not trying to figure out a way to make it work. It’s beyond repair, and he’s accepted it, and that’s what’s most depressing about the song.
At the end of the song, McCartney takes one last pass at the minor-key bridge, and the song ends on a V chord, wanting to go back to the I chord that the song begins on, but it hangs there unresolved like the relationship that is all but over.
McCartney was always known as the cute optimist, the composer of “Good Day Sunshine” and “We Can Work It Out.” With “For No One,” he showed that he could be downright depressing in a subtle but brilliant way.