No introduction, literally, prepares us for the woozy “I Think I Knew”—the song begins right on the words “There’s no talking to him,” but you quickly have to wonder: is it really his fault? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the woman lodging this particular complaint; lyrics fade in and out of comprehension, due partly to Le Bon’s singular accent (she is Welsh), partly to her unforthcoming diction, and partly to the strangeness of the words themselves. The musical atmosphere, meanwhile, is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here (bass, drum, electric guitar, keyboards) played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.
The song’s central motif is both its strongest and strangest: the repetition, in the chorus, of the line “I wish I knew.” She sings it six times in a row, never once quite aligned with the beat, and phrased continually as if blurting an idle thought rather than singing a lyric. (Only later in the song do we get the additional, titular phrase “I think I knew.”) Around the repeated words dances a flute-like synthesizer, which gives us the song’s instrumental hook (that descending scale first heard around 0:59), and then also kind of just scoots away with an abrupt, naive heedlessness.
In the second verse the song becomes a duet, featuring the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Mark Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, and sings with enough fragile/mysterious affect himself that his opening line, too, becomes one of the only lyrically clear moments. Some relationship has taken an unhappy turn, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to listen to such a story when the words fade into a disoriented haze of regret and second thought rather than detail a concrete narrative of blame and/or self-pity. It can be no accident that the song rises above comprehensibility only at the beginning of verses and then at the end, when the duo sings together, with portentous melancholy, “This one to cut the heart in two, the other one to choose.”
“I Wish I Knew” is from Le Bon’s forthcoming album Mug Museum, slated for release in November on Wichita Recordings. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, where Le Bon relocated earlier this year. She has been featured once before on Fingertip, in January 2012. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.