The Way It Used to Be

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Cooper/Higgins/Coler
First released - 2009
Original album - Yes
Producer - Brian Higgins, Xenomania
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Neil has described the underlying premise of this song as one in which a couple, years after breaking up, meet again quite by chance. This sends the narrator into a bittersweet reminiscence of their relationship—its youthful days of romance and its gradual collapse. It turns out that, after all this time, he longs for "the way it used to be." Such a relatively elaborate backstory is hardly essential, however. It's sufficient simply to take it as a song of faded love in which Neil's narrator, who wants "more than only memories" of happiness, begs his lover to "rewind and try again."

More upbeat in style and tempo than its subject matter would suggest, the song's unusual structure doesn't even include a chorus. Rather, it steadily builds in intensity, getting ever edgier, as its narrator's recollection of the past grows more and more despondent. (In many ways, it's strongly reminiscent in theme, style, and structure of latter-day Abba tracks like "The Winner Takes It All" and "When All Is Said and Done": upbeat music but decidedly "downer" lyrics.) Working with a Xenomania backing track, Chris wrote most of the melody on his own. But the "Don't give me all your northern pain" melody and line (and a curious line it is!—might it be alluding to Abba?) were contributed by Xenomania's Miranda Cooper, giving that brief section a different feel from the rest of the song.

Adding to the narrator's pain is the fact that he can't point to any specific incident that may have caused or contributed to this loss of love. That might have granted him at least some small measure of comfort, at least know what went wrong. But it's the not knowing that torments him more than anything else. "I don't know why we moved away," he says. "Our promise was betrayed." Sometimes terrible things happen for no apparent reason. That doesn't diminish the terribleness of it all. On the contrary, it only makes it worse.

As the end approaches—immediately after our protagonist states, "Then and there I knew that I'd lost you"—we hear a remarkable instrumental passage. Dominated by a synth solo that's simultaneously frenzied and constrained, it reflects the narrator's mood: emotionally trapped and tormented. A highly distinctive female support vocalist (singer-songwriter Carla Marie Williams, although the Boys had originally hoped for Tina Turner) then joins Neil, casting an overwhelming mood of tension over the proceedings. Only at the very conclusion do things become more subdued again as Neil wistfully reiterates the title sentiment, only to have the song come to an unexpectedly sudden halt, as if the rug were being pulled out from under him. Only it doesn't end with the proverbial bang, but with the equally proverbial whimper: a quiet, fading chord in synth strings and a lone note on the piano.

Chris and Neil are justly proud of this track, one of the album's standouts. More than one writer has referred to it as a tour de force, and I heartily concur.

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