On analyzing ‘Know’

Nick Drake’s “Know” is two minutes and 25 seconds long, falling right on the boundary for average song length on the artist’s landmark album Pink Moon, and yet it is Spartan compared to everything else on the record. The guitar provides only the rhythm, a repeated slapping twang as Drake croons wordlessly over it. And then, at the one-minute, thirteen-second mark, he comes out with: “Know that I love you/Know I don’t care/Know that I see you/Know I’m not there.”

And that’s it. A small wordless coda over the guitar and the song is over. Consider just what is packed into that set of words, the multitude of ways in which they can be parsed. The simple fact is that the phrases are so resilient, so vague and yet also approachable, that any interpretation I could provide here would quite possibly differ completely from the meaning that you yourself pull from the text. So I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to provide a diagram.

Person A: [I know/You know/Know] that I love you[!/?/.] Person [A/B] :[I know/You know/Know/No,] I don’t care[!/?/.] Person [A/B] :[I know/You know/Know] that I see you[!/?/.] Person [A/B]: [I know/You know/Know/No,] I’m not there[!/?/.]

The diagram is dense, but it shows how, based on the dithering of a few variables, you can generate at least a dozen messages about apathy and love. (Here’s a hint: The “!” indicates the imperative form of the sentence.)

Now, I’m not saying that these meanings are all markedly different; four commands telling someone that you love them, don’t care about them, can see them, and are absent are hardly different from four factual statements about the same thing. But at the extreme ends, an interpretation can run the gamut from Drake’s take on God to a dialogue between stalker and stalked to the mumblings of the schoolboy who sits all day alone in his room. Clusters of similar readings are scattered across the same barren waste of sadness, some observations at the microscopic level and others at the macro, some magnified versions of others, and some completely unique.

Many songs have a limited ability to be generalized. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere in the world can convincingly argue that the ideas present in “Baby Got Back” can be metaphorically applied to aspects of one’s relationships with friends, lovers, humanity, and the divine (this is perhaps the most depressing thing you will read all day) so claiming that “Know” can be interpreted on many different levels is not novel. But “Know” isn’t some kind of verbose musical praise to someone’s booty. It’s sparse. It’s nothing. All the scaling that you choose to apply to the song is upward, to more extreme, more potent meanings than the acoustic guitar suggests. Forget hooks; in four lines “Know” is a small constellation of thoughts, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine the one that is best.

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