Here’s a sad song about a relationship coming to an end. Gordon Lightfoot wrote “If You Could Read My Mind” about his own divorce, and the lyrics are shot through with the bitterness of a man who realizes that the woman he married is now almost a complete stranger:
I never thought I could act this wayAnd I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it I don’t know where we went wrong But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back
Confessional songs always have a tough path to walk: they have to convey the emotions and the heartache, but they always run the risk of going too far, either into “too much information” territory, or they somehow don’t go far enough, relying on clichés and too much easy language to make the point. Lightfoot’s lyrics for this song are interestingly complex: “If you could read my mind” itself, the way the song begins, conveys his desire for his wife to understand him, even though he later acknowledges that he can’t find his way back to how he used to feel.
What I love most about this song is the way the melody interplays with the lyrics. Lightfoot’s words make clear that there’s no way, the love is gone, it’s gone forever–but there’s something in the melody, the way it occasionally yearns upward, that feels like maybe Lightfoot doesn’t quite believe that the love is gone yet, even though he’s heartbroken that “he just can’t get it back”. The melody here deepens the lyrics and exposes them. That’s what a good song can do.
Here is Gordon Lightfoot with “If You Could Read My Mind”.