Hello, music lovers! We are back this week with a personal favorite of mine: “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver. I’m sure most of you have heard this song a thousand times and are cringing at the thought of diving into this over-played tune. But whether you have a lyric tattooed on your wrist, or have cultivated a secret hate for this song, there is no denying its raw beauty.
While writer Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) wrote and performed the original version of this song on his 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago, an artist named Birdy also has a beautiful cover, and both renditions will be available on the playlist. Enjoy!
In an interview, Vernon explained the meaning behind the title. “It’s about that time in a relationship that I was going through; you’re in a relationship because you need help, but that’s not necessarily why you should be in a relationship. And that’s skinny. It doesn’t have weight. Skinny love doesn’t have a chance because it’s not nourished,” Vernon said. I think that this is a beautiful way of phrasing a very common struggle most of us experience — the regret that comes with a failed relationship.
“Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt we were never here
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer”
We are initially greeted with this concept of a “skinny love.” Skinny can take on a few meanings here: skinny in the sense of malnourishment, or skinny in the sense that the relationship isn’t healthy, so there’s no weight to it. Perhaps the love between the two was spread so thin that there’s no longer any substance to it. This narrator is aware of the fragility of the situation yet is still clinging onto it because s/he is convinced s/he needs it — hence the desperate prayer for it to “last the year.”
The salt is a symbol of healing — pouring salt on a wound will aid in the healing process, but it hurts like hell. The narrator could want to just “pour a little salt” on his obviously open wound in a last attempt to keep the relationship going even though s/he’s in pain.
It could also symbolize taking something with a grain of salt — maybe s/he is trying to explain that s/he was exaggerating about everything. Perhaps they want to throw salt over their shoulders in superstition; some good luck seems needed. BUT the most interesting interpretation I found while researching was the act of salting the earth. Apparently this was a practice in the Middle Ages in which conquered cities were cursed. Salting the earth meant the victors would symbolically salt the fields of the city, rendering it infertile and destroying the city. So the narrator here would like to pour salt on the relationship and forget about it.
We then have the tragically vivid image of a bloody sink. One interpretation claims that the sink is a metaphor: this narrator wants to be clean, but cannot get the previous soiled relationship washed out of his/her mind. Veneer could refer to the kind used on wood, or veneer teeth (a sink full of blood and smashed teeth is a powerful image); however, I see this line as talking about a crushed disguise. The true roots and problems of the relationship have become too obvious to ignore.
“I tell my love to wreck it all
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Right in the moment this order’s tall”
It seems as though the narrator is telling this person he loves to just leave him, to bury this relationship and forget about him — to move on. While this might seem a bit cliché and “angsty,” I’m sure many of us have experienced points at which we feel we do not deserve the person we are with. As the narrator mentions cutting the ropes, it appears this loved one is receiving all of the pressure. It is his/her choice whether or not s/he wants to suffer with this narrator and keep the relationship going, or whether s/he wants to live with the guilt of ending it all.
The narrator recognizes that this is a very demanding request but nevertheless puts the burden on the partner. This results in a shifting of opinion about this main character. The narrator is a coward who doesn’t have what it takes to keep the relationship healthy but also doesn’t want to make the ultimate decision to end it.
“I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind”
Here we get the gorgeous use of anaphora, symbolizing that this lover did none of these things in the relationship and that these problems have been going on for a while. We also have a subtle allusion to 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, Love is kind.” If a relationship lacks these qualities, it would make sense that it has become “skinny.”
I always thought that the narrator could be talking to him/herself here. Maybe while s/he is staring at the sink of blood, s/he looks up at the mirror and is having a moment of panic, scolding oneself for failing to keep the relationship healthy despite the constant reminders.
[Chorus End pt. 1]
“In the morning I’ll be with you
But it will be a different “kind”
I’ll be holding all the tickets
And you’ll be owning all the fines”
While the relationship needs to be over, the two are still together in the morning. This symbolizes the vicious cycle of wanting to end it, yet being too cowardly to actually do so. The relationship will be a different kind because it is no longer pure. Now the narrator has all of the “tickets,” which are a symbol for the guilt and blame, while the partner gets off easily even though they were truly guilty of all of the problems.
“Come on skinny love what happened here
Suckle on the hope in light brassiere
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Sullen load is full; so slow on the split”
The question here makes it seem like the narrator takes a step back and becomes overwhelmed by the amount of damage. The second line finally acknowledges that the only thing holding the relationship together is the sex, symbolized by the bra. To “suckle,” is a verb describing a woman nourishing a child. The narrator is holding tightly onto this malnourished love that is fueled by the wrong things.
This idea is emphasized by the last line, this dark and “sullen” load is a huge burden and might take a while to unpack and heal from. A “split” is a term used in running to describe when one has to run a specific amount of time for a particular distance — the narrator implies, through a lovely alliteration, that the pair aren’t hitting the appropriate and necessary benchmarks needed to keep the relationship going.
[Chorus End pt. 2]
“Now all your love is wasted?
Then who the hell was I?
Now I’m breaking at the britches
And at the end of all your lines”
The narrator is angry now, claiming everything was for nothing, wondering what the hell s/he was thinking that someone else could truly fall in love with him/her. We get an image of bursting out of britches because of the extreme frustration with the situation. The narrator is at the “end of all the lines,” a play on the common phrase, “at the end of my rope” (remember the ropes that were cut earlier?). There is nothing left to salvage. We’re at the end — the last straw — and there’s nothing else to do.
“Who will love you?
Who will fight?
Who will fall far behind?
These last few questions support my earlier claim that the narrator is talking to him/herself: after all of this who could possibly love me, fight for me, who will I avoid or overlook in this state of darkness?
This song may be bleak and rather depressing (I mean, it is Bon Iver after all), but not everything is happy all the time. Love is beautiful and amazing, but it is also painful and messy and requires multiple tries before we get it right. “Skinny Love” does a hauntingly accurate job of capturing the relationship mess we often find ourselves in.
— Haley Renison, Asst. Managing Editor