The Home Key #8:

Regina Spektor, Onto-Theologically


Rick Moody


1.  First, let it be known that the first single from the new Regina Spektor album1 is not “new” in the sense that an early live performance, available on YouTube, dates to November 2014 or eight years ago (as of this writing). In the recording of this 2014 performance, Spektor ad libs in a prefatory way: “Here’s another new song—well, new to you anyway.”
2.  If “Becoming All Alone,” the “new” single is not from “now” (from the time of BA.2, the time of the Ukrainian invasion and subsequent war, the time of renewed gun violence, the time of the imminent Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade), then from when? If it is from earlier than 2014, which it could be as Spektor implies it is not new to herself (like others on the new album), then from when? Could it be from the earliest years of her career? Could it be from the beginning of her career? Could the beginning of her career be defined as the moment in which “Becoming All Alone” is written, such that we can define the notion of songwriting as a becoming alone, dating this idea to the earliest time of a songwriting Spektor? Could it be from her childhood? Could it be “primordial?”
3.  What changes are apparent in the song during its metamorphosis from beginning unto its release? Primarily we notice that the current version, as released in late February of 2022 (and as performed on a certain television talk show), is largely intact in the 2014 live recording, including, even, the nascent string arrangement of the bridge, which Spektor sings during the (solo) live recording, which consists only of piano and voice. In this, the live recording, with sung “string ensemble,” resembles the George Harrison demos, so often superior to the finished recordings, made for All Things Must Pass (another artist concerned with God).
4.  Spektor, it happens, once covered Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” circa 2015, or near to the first videotaping of “Becoming All Alone,” and she covered it without, it seems, employing a guitar. That is, she recast the Eric Clapton guitar solo on that song note for note with mandolin (I think) and string section, thus indicating a foreknowledge of this theologically-concerned artist, Harrison, and seeing into his deepest meanings, while preserving an aesthetic of both irony and poignancy, which is present in the Harrison demos, where he too sings the “string parts” (here: ).
5.  Another change of significance in the most recent reiteration of “Becoming All Alone, as distinct from the "original” or the “primordial” version:
6.  The removal of the parenthetical. Clearly, the song was once known as “Becoming (All Alone),” which would have been, perhaps, how Martin Heidegger would have entitled it, using the bracketing technique he favored with his translation of the Anaximander fragment.2
7.  Becoming and Aloneness are items of equivalent exchange.
8.  Why does Heidegger lavish Anaximander with such attention? It might be because the Anaximander fragment is about origins, the idea of origins, and it stands as a sort of an origin, a wish about the “primordial,” though it may not be primordial, though the fragment may be disparate texts fused together, and yet: the “primordial” constitutes a unity in itself, is reliable, or unreconstructed, is up for grabs, is one thing, both in meaning and in being, present and fragmentary.
9.  And of course the Anaximander fragment deals with time, as shown here (in the Nietzsche translation, which is also here translated into English by David Farrell Kent: “ … for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.” (Heidegger later translates this clause in this way [translation by Kent]: “ … for they let order and thereby also reck belong to one another (in the surmounting) of disorder.”)
10.  The self is in the lurching into Being, according to the ordinance of time. The question of Being is suppressed, and self, and thus Being, lurches into view in strange, uncanny moments, where least expected, in unfolding, in concealing and revealing.
11.  This song, by Regina Spektor, “Becoming (All Alone),” or “Becoming (All)(Alone),” by constituting an early layer of self, the Being that is the being Regina Spektor, may date to the 1990s when Spektor was first writing songs, in secret, while studying classical piano, and using borrowed instruments, in high school assembly halls, as befitted the relative poverty of a recent American immigrant, who came to the U.S. (to the Bronx) from the Soviet Union, and perhaps it was in this early brush with the popular song, which would have been playing in the Duane Reade, nearest to her house, wherein she first heard, let’s say, “One of Us,” by Eric Bazilian, as recorded by Joan Osborne, which is also the site of onto-theological inquiry, of a somewhat light variety.
12.  A self may construe its being in opposition to the existing lyrics, perhaps overheard on a bus (traveling between Riverdale and the Manhattan School of Music), or at the Duane Reade, the song by Bazilian, which refers to God as a “slob,” which posits a “slob” version of God.
13.  “Slob” is Anglo-Irish, from early Scandinavian words (perhaps as a result of Viking incursions into Celtic lands), which also give “sludge” and “slab,” the early meaning of which was “mud.”
14.  An interesting feature of Regina Spektor’s songs is her hearing of English as linguistically other (owing to Russian being her first language), and using English, with, it should be said, shockingly perfect mimicry, primarily according to its slangy, rhythmic vitality, and as an object, exaggerating its solecisms and oddities (Note, e.g., the glottal stops in the song called “Fidelity.” Note, e.g., the repetititions of the word “beat” in “Dance Anthem of the 80’s.”)
15.  Perhaps she would have noticed the Bazilian composition (as recorded by Joan Osborne) for the slangy use of “slob,” and only later did she feel the shiver of theological immanence, fleetingly visible there, what if God was one of us (which I think, grammatically, should be “What if God were one of us”), in this case meaning, perhaps, what if God were one of the members of a Russian-Jewish family driven out of the Soviet Union by antisemitism, coming to the U.S.A., with, presumably, nascent English-language skills, learning the language through television and pop songs, hearing English as an object, not as a meaning system, and trying to make friends with a bunch of American mooks who don’t give a shit about the Russian-Jewish girl and her having fled her homeland.
16.  A good example of slangy usage in “Becoming (All Alone)” is when, in verse one, God says: “Hey, let’s grab a beer,/It’s awful late,/we both right here.”3
17.  In truth, there is enough in just these three lines to write an entire essay about! Because, apparently, God is here!
18.  And before this author returns to these three lines, let it be noted that I am suppressing the first line of the song— “I went walking home alone,” which is from the narrator’s perspective (i.e., not God’s perspective), and which already indicates the solitary space that is so often the space of metaphysical crisis, from which an idea of Being presences itself, to use Heidegger’s word, beginning in an unconcealment, a sort of aletheia. What there is to say about this first line is: it was perhaps written before the songwriter had a child. (The songwriter is now a mother, having become one in, I think, 2015, and having had another child, as I understand it, quite recently.)
19.  We make this judgment of non-parental status because the lyric does not say “I was pushing a perambulator with a screaming kid in it home at 6:40 PM, and I had another thirty blocks to go, and my husband was yelling about bills.”
20.  While a post-reproductive Spektor could have written this line (“I went walking home alone”) in a yearning to be pre-maternal with poignant implications that would not have had the same reverberating existentialism, the collision with meaninglessness and finitude of “I went walking home alone” is such that only a single person or a person recently acquainted with being single could write it, which is to say that a person who is not a mother has time for metaphysical or onto-theological crisis, and a parent does not.
21.  When Spektor says that she does not write confessional songs, we can either a) take her at her word, b) not believe her at all, or c) believe both, in some fashion.
22.  There is no apparent gender to the narrator of “Becoming (All Alone),” and no apparent race to this narrator; no economic circumstances, no historical epoch, there is an almost Beckettian stripping away of superficial detail until the only thing we know about the narrator in verse one is that they seem plausibly to drink beer (although this is not truly confirmed until verse three, when the narrator makes the same offer to God in reverse, let’s grab a beer).
23.  The slangy quality of God’s inquiry (God seems to be the speaker of the invitation, in verse one, but not in verse three), as quoted in #15 above, is most evident in “it’s awful late,” and, especially, in the transcendent observation, “We both right here.” It’s “awful late,” has a mid-century aw shucks component that is meant to humanize God (to make a “slob” of “him,” to refashion “him” from mud), and it should probably be punctuated “awful-late” or “awful/late” to make clear its existentialist implications, its post-historical implications, though this awful moment is not as transfixing as:
24.  “We both right here.”
25.  “We both right here” is classic Spektor in the sense that it elides “We are both right here” or “We’re both right here,” and has dialogical sloppiness, a slob-hood that collides with “awful/late,” in terms of era, suppressing the verb in a way that some native New Yorkers might not do out of wishing to avoid appropriationist mimickry, but which Spektor commits to as a person who overhears English as it is, as other, perfectly mimicking.
26.  We “both” is immensely powerful in God’s monologue (verse one), yes, because it implies “I and thou,” between narrator and God, together, separate and together, which in turn leads to:
27.  “Right here.” The idea of Being, or Seinsfrage, that “Becoming (All Alone)” embodies, and “embodies” is just the right word, is the Seinsfrage of “right here.” We both right here. Space is transcended. God’s observation is transfixing, or perhaps simply “fixing,” in the I-and-thou of it, we both right here. There is not a spot that is occupied by one of us but not the other, which means, in truth, that we are the same, or one of us is occupied by the other.
28.  While it is true that the narrator is walking home alone, bereft, unaccompanied, or feels herself/himself/themself thus, it is also true that the narrator, according to God, shares the same space that God occupies.
29.  Look, it is probably very likely the case (unless time is non-linear), that the song we are discussing was written before if not well before or very long before the COVID-19 public health emergency, and as such that the narrator was walking past “bars and corner delis” (line two) that were open for business at the time of this perambulation. But I prefer to think also of the shuttered time, or at least to interpret with this image at hand, wherein “bars” refers not to drinking establishments, but to the metal fittings that indicate that the establishments are closed, definitively so, and thus that bereft is bereft of local businesses, in the way one might walk, e.g., in Kyiv, too, or Mariupol.
30.  “I went waking home alone/Past all the bars and corner delis/When I heard God/Call out my name.”
31.  What does it mean when God calls out your name (and let us reiterate that we never learn the name of the character/protagonist/narrator, and so for the purpose of the analysis the name is “Thou”)? What is the feeling? (The string/synthesizer pad in the back of verse one does the spooky suspended four here and then resolves it in a funny/numinous way—so as to reify the encounter, to make it emotionally rich).
32.  Moments in which God calls your name are transfigurative and revelatory. (Or so the relevant medieval and renaissance art and literature seems to indicate.)
33.  (Also, in the course of thinking about “calling,” I thought back to incredible popular songs that turn on the idea of names being called out, and especially songs with a Gospel feel to them, wherein God and the lover are plausibly like unto one another, and I was therefore led, of course, to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which exists, you know, in many versions, the “calling” extruding outward, no matter who attempts it (Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrell, The Supremes & The Temptations (!), Diana Ross without the Supremes, and so on). Apparently, Berry Gordy disliked this song (!), because of the spoken word passage. But it’s precisely the spoken word passage that loads up “calling” with its ultimate freight, makes the word mean the thing beyond simply a word being uttered, in which instead there is an actual bringing near in utterance, an abridgment of distance.) And I can remember the impact of this song, as a kid, on the car radio, on the AM dial, and sometimes in the great struggle of my own breaking-apart home from that time: “Just remember what I told you, the day I set you free!” In which the being inviting the other to call feels the wholeness that God feels when “calling” out to the humans. You are free! But we are also one!)
34.  Is it the case that an imperialist war in Europe, brought about by the nation from which Spektor’s family fled, is itself a reason that Regina Spektor is suddenly revealed as one of the finest songwriters working today? Or is the “calling” and the sharing of a space with God (“we both right here”) so ontologically deep, that the war is simply another layer, another context that puts down roots in the song, which calls across difference, into a oneness? Because it seems there are so many layers, so many shoots, so much unfolding, unconcealing, therein.
35.  For example in the line: “I went walking home alone.”
36.  What Regina Spektor, the immigrant, the refugee, means when she employs the word “home” is not what everyone means. She means something much more complex, a layering, in which is included, perhaps, exile.
37.  It is said of Heidegger’s “turn” (die Kehre) in his later work that it became concerned with the history of ontology, and in particular with the language with which this is expressed, that he wanted not a human perception of Being, but the way that language (and art, don’t forget this part, the art) can give access to, or describe, or hint at, Seinsfrage apart from the perceiving human subject. It is perhaps also true that he was trying to atone for his blundering around, his idiocy, his slob-hood, during the National Socialist time, his antisemitism generally, his political naïveté, his unreconstructed conservatism, and it comes out, perhaps, in his wrestling with Nietzsche, and with Anaximander, and with Hölderlin, that his own subjectivity is a thing that he wouldn’t mind putting aside.
38.  (Nietzsche recommends “slow reading,” by the way, which is what I’m attempting to do here, with a song by Regina Spektor.)
39.  How to reconcile an ontological, or ontic, or onto-theological feeling, with a feeling of annihilation in the air, which is a feeling of the present, a time of the antisemitic, nativist, nationalist, Tsarist, feudalist, totalitarian tendencies, a time of total war between the liberal tendency and the totalitarian tendency, a time of double speak, a time of concealing and unconcealing hate (everywhere), how to reconcile these with an ontology of song, in which Being Here (“we both right here”) is a thing that happens in song, in which song is a thing that confers both the “Being” and the “Here?” This author is not competent to make this argument, but is rather is attempting to gesture at it, to follow the sun wherever it leads, and to look at the feelings, to be here for the feelings, to inhabit the feelings.
40.  As the first verse continues, we get the revelation of not having to pay for the beer with God, which is a trope that I will refer to as Spektorian Irony, or in certain cases as Mere Cleverness. However, in the formulation “Mere Cleverness,” it should understood that “mere” has both meanings: “small and slight” and “an opening into the sea.” The latter being the sense in which C.S. Lewis employed it, you probably remember, in the title Mere Christianity.
41.  Spektorian irony is very funny, yes, and it connects her to certain witty piano-based songwriters past, for example Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. Newman has written a song sending up Vladimir Putin (entitled “Putin:” “Putin putting his pants on/One leg at a time/He’s just like a regular fella”), which itself exhibits Spektorian Irony in superabundance, indicating one way that influence works, namely that an artist can appear to be influenced by an artist who postdates him and is in turn influenced by his work.
42.  It would be fair to say that Spektorian Irony has some Russian literary precursors; Gogol and Nabokov, of course, might serve as sterling examples, though there are many more.
43.  The non-paying for beer is clearly the sort of Spektorian Irony in which the opposite is the case, the reverse-meaning sort: because of course there is no non-payment. We have to pay and pay and pay and pay and pay and pay.
44.  And, remember, the issue of “payment” is also contained in, if not indeed the very purpose of, the Nietzsche translation of Anaximander: “ … for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time,” though perhaps it is the case that Heidegger takes issue with this, in his essay on the subject.
45.  Now let us briefly turn our attention, while on the subject of payment and non-payment, to the gender of God: “God is God, and he’s revered.” (No capital “H” in “he,” by the way, per the author. See the “lyrics” video.)
46.  Would it have been that hard to say “she (God) is revered?” (Or “She.”) It would not have been. “They are revered” would have been very 21st century, and thus of this time not of a “primordial” time.
47.  He is revered, here, however, because the song was written at the dawn of the Being Here of Regina Spektor, Seinsfrage, when it was less common to avoid “he” pronouns with respect to God (Bazilian uses “he” in “One of Us,”)—kind of makes you see how brilliant and forward thinking was John Lennon with the lines, “God is a concept/By which we measure/Our pain.”
48.  Were one to want to use a cultural/theological explanation for “God is God” one might have to resort to a Pentateuch-oriented textual footing as “primordial” grounding. One might have to point to a Jewish childhood, to Hebrew school, and אֶהְיֶהאֲשֶׁראֶהְיֶה‎, commonly translated as “I am who I am,” though I personally prefer “I am that I am,” or what I am told is the most accurate Hebrew translation, “I shall be that I shall be.”
49.  “God is God” in the Spektor lyric retains the A=A identity feature of the original (from Moses and the burning bush, Exodus 3:14), which would seem to be syntactically imperative. The God-related reverence Spektor later alludes to (“and he’s [or "you’re” in verse three] revered") is also in keeping with the traditional relationship we are enjoined to have with God in the very first writings of the monotheistic variety. The “he” in Spektor’s composition follows a sort of traditional Old Testament narrative, and thus shimmers with the ancientness of the Pentateuch, retaining its manifold implications, an origin of the struggle with onto-theology, with the self as a person who occupies that same space with God, “We both right here.”
50.  At some point: it is a necessity that these remarks include Randy Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” from 2002, truly one of the most withering and sad of pop songs to feature God as a character. It’s clear that Spektor’s pianistic style owes something to Newman’s New Orleans-meets-Debussy stylings, and there is his irony, too, but “God’s Song,” is so Old Testament as to be both accurate and somewhat forbidding. This Newman-esque God is the one of wanton destruction, the destroyer of Sodom, Gomorrah, Kyiv, Sloviansk, Mariupol, Fukushima, New Orleans, Dresden, Hiroshima, etc., He who permits destruction, and this God’s reaction to our sorrow and suffering is, perhaps, to laugh (although the song leaves a door open a crack, where the light of God’s sympathy, which is to say God’s love, leaks in). He does love mankind. Just for strange reasons. It’s right there in the title.
51.  Newman is one variety of Jewish songwriter, a Vaudevillian, an artificer of the absurd, an appreciator, perhaps, of the Zero Mostel or Mel Brooks comedies, a dead-serious moralist hiding in wolf’s clothing, a clown and a prophet, a fulminator from the critical place of the Torah, and a sort of a Jewish American stand-up guy with a profound feeling for music from New Orleans. Spektor is different. “God is God, and he’s revered,” has the toil of Hebrew school unconcealed in it, especially the words אֶהְיֶהאֲשֶׁראֶהְיֶה‎, “I shall be that I shall be.”
52.  We have been working our way toward the chorus and now we are here, we are it, and the chorus is a thing of sublimity (the sublime being a word initially coined to describe the experience of looking at the Alps), which is here defined as an experience of being (or Being, more importantly) that is undistracted by the opioids of the world, by the cultural narcotics, by the problem of technology, sublimity which is a hereness, an unforgetting, and which is formulated, by the narrator/porotagonist in a question and an observation, both addressed, one assumes, to the consubstantial God who is right here, closer than the breath is close, in this same spot.
53.  “Why doesn’t it get better with time?”
54.  This question, occurring in the refrain of the song, is so plangent, so sad, so powerful, that it mostly defies explicatory language, but let us pause for a moment. The most plausible reaction to this question is to weep. At least if you are occupying the place of the song, if you can say to the song: we both right here.
55.  Go ahead, weep.
56.  As you know, Heidegger intended to write more about time in Being and Time, but he ran out of time, at least insofar as the initial project went, and so he left some of the ramifications unexplored, because he was busy with his blockheaded and hateful political deliberations, and then he was spending the rest of his life failing to explain fully, though somewhere in there he seems to have defined Dasein as a thing experienced against a backdrop of “finitude,” that is a thing of impermanence. We are all Beings in Time, at the mercy of Time the Avenger.
  “Time, one more vodka and lime, to paralyze that little tick tick,” as Christie Hynde memorably sang (in 1983, when Spektor, circa age three, was still in the Soviet Union).
58.  You can rely on the fact that Spektor really means this question, “Why doesn’t it get better with time?,” because it has too many syllables to be easily fitted into the line (her version sort of goes “Whysn’t it get better with time”). If it could be easily shortened, made more succinct, she would have shortened it. And it’s the “it” in Spektor’s line, the vague antecedent, that packs the most wallop. Because the implication seems to be that “it” could be anyone, anything, any ideal, any institution, any human quality, any human, any lover, any anything here before us, under scrutiny, any being subjected to time.
59.  Our assumption might be that “Becoming (All Alone),” is a love song, based on this question, with “It” standing for a love relationship of some kind, but this is to hem in the possible meanings, of which I have suggested some alternatives, and alternatives are what I chiefly prize here. Spektor may want you to think it’s a love song, in order to get to a billion streams, but the author of these notes asserts the opposite, excepting insofar as the love object is a thing bound into the formative, constitutive material of the universe, of God “himself.” It is bigger than just the lover, like in that moment when Diana Ross sings: “Just remember what I told you, the day I set you free.”
60.  “Why doesn’t it get better with time?” Indeed.
61.  It gets better, in terms of perception, our gratitude for being, our noticing of Being, the song of our Being, the outflow of sorrow and reconciliation that is Being, only at the advent of death, and that is what time does to us, drives us down, forsaken, broken, homely, ill, until we can feel our Being, and then we are gone. And this gratitude for Being beings is a thing that can unfold, almost uniquely in song, and it that way it does get better.
62.  In Spektor’s song, it must be noted, God does not respond to the question.
63.  Which causes the narrator to say; “I’m becoming all alone again,/stay, stay, stay.”
64.  It will be transparent by now that the line really reads: “I’m becoming (all alone)(again)—stay, stay, stay.” Because it is in the presence and oneness, the non-duality, the consubstantial immensity, the I and Thou, of a relationship with this Abrahamic God, that one understands becoming, experiences the drama and movement of Being Here, and in the earthly sense that is to be alone, devoid of community, in the way Moses was, in Exodus 3:14.
65.  The “stay” command, which comes in batches of three, for the trinitarians in the room, is, perhaps, directed at the God character, but the ambiguity persists, the ambiguity in which there is perhaps a physical, earthly lover too.
66.  Verse two4 brings with it the rhythm section, which I dislike. The bass part is nice, but the drums are mixed too loud,5 and sound slightly machined, click-tracked, even though the song has tempo changes (see below at note #99), which in the contemporary world co-exist with drum machines only with great effort. I think the rhythm section exists here primarily so that it can be dropped out in verse three, for maximum rhetorical impact.
67.  From the point of view of onto-theology, verse two is thrown away, is merely psychotherapeutic, and this may account for the song’s delayed exposure to the Spektorian fan base, according to career-related formulations that have nothing to do with art. I base my judgment on a preponderance of wittiness in verse two that I nonetheless find funny and beguiling, despite its lack of references to German philosophy: “And I just want to ride/But this whole world/it makes me carsick.”
68.  The emphasis here, in this sequence, would be the landing on “carsick,” which is where the early pundits, writing about this song, have concentrated their attentions, wow, that line is so funny, and it’s so Spektorian, and really when I used to think Spektor was sort of a little bit Broadway (how wrong I was), what I meant was not the brassy crescendos of the songs, but rather the moments of cleverness. And the theory of this commentary is that the cleverness always conceals a deeper feeling and is meant to conceal it. Often Spektor goes for the high note when she wants a feeling to be unconcealed—as when Delilah sings “You are my sweetest downfall, I loved you first,” in Spektor’s monologue for Delilah entitled “Samson.” (A very spectacular song, by the way.)
69.  I’m going to talk about what a remarkable singer Spektor is more below. But let it be said that she is a singer of exquisite nuance, not faultlessly executing, but being human, demonstrating the human, executing not the song but the human, and thus causing a surge of feelings/sympathies/expiations.
70.  “And I just want to ride,” this line has occupied this exegete for a couple of days now, over and over. Is it possible that is an allusion to the “rider” of blues and traditional songs, like “I Know You Rider,” or “Crossroads?” So that it’s a line not simply about being a passenger on the passenger side, but rather it means “rider” in the old sense a romantic partner? It is in the metier of this lyricist to extend a metaphor, as she does here, by leading from the passenger side, into the taxi image that follows, “Stop the meter, sir/You have a heart,/Why don’t you use it,” but the extended metaphor lands less completely than “And I just want to ride” with its implication of “ I just wanna ride,” which would be the Ramones version (Joey Ramone is another great modern Jewish lyricist). I just want to be a rider.
71.  (Again, I’m relying on the “official” “lyric video” here for the precision account of these lines, here and elsewhere, which will become relevant for the middle eight, more of a middle sixteen, in one moment.)
72.  Oh, and as for “You have a heart, why don’t you use it,” it’s not that God has a heart, it’s that God is the origin of all hearts! The origin all ideas of hearts, the origin of all metaphors, the origin of all songs, the origin of all singers of songs, the origin of all bars and delis, the origin of all Abrahamic faiths, the origin of all priests, prophets, Pharisees, and scriptural exegetes, the origin of all things, the origin of time itself, and it’s not that God invented time in order that all could grow old and desperate, but that there is no Becoming and no Being without time; time is how being notices Being. In time. The meter can’t be stopped, because the meter is how “Is” is. Here’s Nietzsche’s translation the beginning of Anaximander: “Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity.”
73.  We have forborne to mention the initial two lines of verse two, but now we do so with foreknowledge—gained from the use of “sir” further in—that the first-person narrator is directly addressing God in verse two (which should probably be in quotation marks, but isn’t, in the “official” “lyric video”), having turned from a recitation of the tale.
74.  “Let the ones who want it bad/Get all the things/That make ‘em better;/Let the ones who don’t care, feel the thrill.”
75.  The command form of these two lines clearly apes the “Let there be light” rhetorical form of God’s demiurgical spree in Genesis, in such a way that God would surely appreciate (this rhetorical form caused me to entertain, before discarding, the idea that verse two opens with further quotation from the all-powerful “himself”), but it’s the pathos of these lines that grips this reader—the narrator indicating what she/he/they would fix if they had the omnipotence feature available to themselves.
76.  While, as we have noted, the composer named Regina Spektor alleges to avoid the autobiographical, it’s the first line here (“Let the ones who want it bad,” etc.) that feels most like what you say, having lived a life in the arts, when you behold others for whom success is a matter of life and death.
77.  It is axiomatic that those who need success, require “it” to “make 'em better,” are often promoted to just the point of failure, to irrelevance, to the well-appointed home in Chappequa, or the condo in Boca Raton, or to a shack in Laurel Canyon, at the moment of irrelevance, from which to rue what might have been, in some storied version of a life, and Spektor seems to know with clarity that early lust for arts-related (or other) world domination, which so often vaporizes in the caring-more-about-the-kids forties, and she wills a salve onto the wound of it here, and likewise she sees the despond of low-level depression, the recoiling, the other life/work model, quiet desperation, and wishes to heal that too. The accuracy of the sympathy here is big-hearted, as befits someone in the process of “Becoming,” accuracy is worthy of being pronounced “good,” and it leads us back, ultimately to the refrain, which follows verse two, “Whysn’t it get better with time?”
78.  Why doesn’t it? Except that it is in this crisis when we notice we are here, the crisis in which it does not get better.
79.  Now, the string section! To the orchestration! To the choir of singers in falsetto (which I believe may include Spektor’s husband, Jack Dishel, who has occasionally served in this and related capacities, on many of her works)!
80.  Spektor’s appetite, as a former “classical pianist,” or a sometime “classical pianist,” for orchestral flavors in her arrangements is, or has been, ongoing; she has mentioned it in interviews, a desiring of strings, and it is, perhaps, an inevitable development in songwriters who wish to be taken seriously. I too personally desire strings, and it’s a thing that perhaps obviously connects Spektor to Spector, the murderer who died not long ago, the architect of the Wall of Sound. He loved strings.
81.  That said, Spektor is so strikingly effective as a solo performer (verse three of “Becoming (All Alone)” features mostly piano, and no rhythm section, as does the live version of the song from 2014 and the more recent talk show performance), that she really can make voice and piano do what needs to be done. Anyway, mostly, these days, the string section is a synthesizer with perhaps one track of violin alongside it, if that. Where do you get a rental orchestra during an epidemic? (Well, actually, Macedonia, in this case, or so it has been written.)
82.  However, the instrumental break, so Morricone-like, with its hummable melody, its brassy moments, and then its falsetto choir, is unrestrained, and, well, very funny. It’s show-offy in that way Spektor sometimes is, performative; it dares you to think it’s too much; you can almost see a Bob Fosse choreographic routine to it, featuring some top-hat-related display by a Minelli-ish Weimar type with a garter belt on, while God observes from the wings, dragging on a smoke.
83.  Though my contention is that it’s here, this orchestral bedazzlement, like the rhythm section, so it can drop out. It’s funny, beautiful, and it leaves the song, like a bedazzlement from a fancy department store, so that the protagonist can once again be naked and alone, as on an island with poisonous snakes.
84.  Meanwhile, let us speak briefly again to the “lyric video,” and to the section of this video that passes during the aforementioned bridge, the instrumental break, which has no lyrics, and which thus constitutes , therefore, dead air. Which must be filled in any video that purports to catalogue the words, and/or to do otherwise.
85.  The “lyric video” chooses during this portion to include some illustrative drawings.
86.  Which causes an exegete to wonder how “on earth” might one illustrate this song?
87.  (Assuming you aren’t going to attempt to depict the undepictable, which is like naming the unnameable, or gendering the ungendered.)
88.  Bronx storefronts? Bars and delis? The interior of a taxi?
89.  The page of the depicted theme book (sewn binding!) in which the lyrics are being written (in a sort of ersatz human scrawl), in the “lyric video” would be perfect for doodles, and so during the bridge there are some doodles. The first of these is ambiguous, but I’m going to say that it is a cracked or otherwise broken piece of crockery, my guess is: a pitcher. The fecundity of this image will be plain, especially in a context of desert religions, and it comes up in Ecclesiastes 12, the “Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth,” section, “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.”
90.  The second doodle is an old-fashioned pocket watch (or is it a compass?) whose droopy and ambiguous hands do not easily suggest an actual time (which I would be happy to interpret, were it clearer which hand is which), but rather just the notion of time. Then there are some urban buildings, skyscrapers, a tulip, a section given over to scribble, and then, also, a leafless shrub.
Spektor pic
92.  Let’s assume it’s not the burning bush, but simply a scraggly, scrubby, denuded tree, depicted here in its wintry raiment, at the time of hopelessness which precedes the coming of new birth, just around the corner, in the repetition compulsion of time.
93.  The tree, to me, though shoehorned in by whoever made, on the cheap, the “official” “lyrics video” for Regina Spektor’s song, cannot fail to recall Heidegger’s 1970 exegesis of the line “Nature’s gleaming is higher revealing,”6 from the poem “Autumn” by the German poet (and troubled person) Friedrich Hölderlin.
94.  That is (and here I’m digesting Heidegger’s Way of Being, by Richard Capobianco), there is an essence of nature, a “holy” idea of nature, an essence of Being that shines forth from nature itself, which Hölderlin describes in the poem that Heidegger interprets, evidencing the thing, in words, rather than being apart from it.
95.  For me, having had a sudden bolt of experience, if you’ll pardon a hackneyed formulation for revelation, from reading a mere description of Heidegger’s Dasein six or seven years ago, the image of tree limbs waving in the breeze is the giving-form of “nature’s gleaming,” always, on any breezy day, as if their trembling, sturdy but yielding, has been my own trembling before revelation of what it is to be here, and what it means to behold.
96.  The appearance of the denuded tree in the “lyric video,” a video which writes down Spektor’s Becoming-in-Song, her Becoming Song, the thrownness of the immigrant child, into American song, is figuration of nature as a thing Becoming, revealing its essence, in the drawing, even as the expression of being is always different from Being itself.
97.  My cousin, both a retired priest and a painter, had a period of making paintings of trees. Slightly abstracted tree limbs, both tree limbs and not tree limbs, sometimes appearing to be human limbs, sometimes arteries of connectedness, all abstracted, but all revealing a nature essence, this having been part of my conversation with him, my cousin, about how and when creation reveals itself, how we think about the Being of things, the system of the holy in trees, in pictures of trees, in the language with which we describe these, the ekphrasis thereof.
98.  How surprising, I mean, to see my cousin’s tree limbs quoted in the scribble-scrabble of the “lyric video” of the new song by Regina Spektor. The scraggly, scrubby, denuded, as a sign of nature’s gleaming.7
99.  Before leaving the instrumental break behind, let us note that it ends with a ritardando, a slowing down, in the musical sense. The song slows. I asked a drummer friend of mine to listen to this retard to see if it, the slowing, was evidence of live drumming (it is hard to get drum machines or sampled drums to perform a retard), and his feeling was that the “note” played by the drum goes down during the retard, suggesting that the retard in the break was automated, performed by a machine, rather than performed live, a machined gesture for a revolutionary immediacy.
100.  Nevertheless, there is a retard, and contemporary music rarely changes tempo, because it is most often recorded to a click track with pre-formatted beats per minute. It delivers a tempo the way a cigarette delivers its nicotine plus additives.
101.  And the retard in question inaugurates verse three, which, unless I miss my guess is very slightly slower than verse one—for emphasis.
102.  Verse three consists mostly of piano and voice (with some ornamental strings, but they are in the rear of the mix).
103.  Verse three is a thing of shimmering beauty and philosophical immensity and loss.
104.  Verse three is a profound expression of Being in Song, Seinsfrage.
105.  Verse three gets closer to an expression of longing for, of meeting with, of being in the divine as anything I have heard in some time.
106.  Verse three features truly moving and important singing.
107.  As indicated above, in the 2014 live performance of the song, verse three is more an exact refrain of verse one, is an example of the “third verse, same as the first” procedural gambit. One suspects the delay in the release of Spektor’s song was not only because the feelings expressed in it are particularly revealing, intimate even, but that the ending was unfathomable, at first, and thus the first verse was repeated, and this seemed like substandard composition.
108.  But then—
109.  The third verse became about recalling the presence of the God character, from the place of aloneness, longing for the consolation: “I went walking home alone, past all the bars and corner delis, when I asked God, please call, call my name.” (Italics mine.)
110.  The singing in this passage is of a sort of shattering reliability, above all it is tender, and simple, declarative, practically a whisper, almost a whimper (at “I asked God”), but above all like a person bearing witness. Whereas “Let’s grab a beer” was funny, preposterous in verse one, here it’s resigned and almost desperate, unto the rising into the refrain, not funny, but terribly serious, aghast, lost, bereft.
111.  Let us speak briefly to tenderness as an approach to contemporary singing. Let us note the absence of tenderness in contemporary singing. Certainly the opposite is the more commonly sketched out approach among male-identifying singers (this author just briefly listened to “I Cum Blood” by Cannibal Corpse to double check the veracity of this claim, and then, very, very briefly, to something by 6ix9ine).
112.  It should be noted that “tenderness” and “quiet” or “pianissimo” or “despondent” are not to be understood as synonyms, as there is a very post-millennial trope wherein a muted presentation from the point of view of musical arrangement, a non-stridency, expresses (nonetheless) combative or controversial lyrics.
113.  The quiet voice that is wantonly despairing is well-known, and is not the thing I mean to catalogue. (See, for example, “Black-Eyed Dog,” by Nick Drake is an example. Or “Wild Is the Wind,” by Nina Simone.)
114.  Tenderness is tenderness (A=A).
115.  Tenderness in an onto-theological context is prayerful or receptive or knowing, it’s non-prideful. It is of God, and with God, for our purposes. It is a gentle acknowledgement of the actual. Tenderness in popular music used to be more common. Some perhaps think it is weakness, now. Some think tenderness is weak. Some people think forgiveness, an often tender gesture, is weak. (And for an excellent depiction of forgiveness in song, listen to the third single from Spektor’s Home, before and after, entitled “Loveology.”)
116.  The opposite of tenderness is commonplace; it’s our everyday fare. Every day the humans arise and prepare to denounce their neighbor. With a righteous cry!
117.  Because Spektor demonstrates tenderness, her voice finds itself in places that sound unusual, in places that are not exactly like other singers.8
118.  Three times now the narrator will have asked “Why doesn’t it get better with time?” and in the third instance she can barely finish the question, here employing the top end of her voice, where she goes, as I have said, for the extra-emotive reserve. She makes the three repetitions of the question a journey with the third wrenching, unanswerable.
119.  If the Regina Spektor tendency, so capacious is her talent, is to jam in a lot of word play and double entendre and sheer volume of imagery in a song (see, for example, “Grand Hotel,” from her last album), as if solving the problem, the agony of Being, with scale, nevertheless there are these moments when the songs are naked in their beholding, frank, unpremeditated in their openness, right at hand, and such is the case here.
120.  It doesn’t get better with time because time strips away everything, until just the rebar and the colonies of mice are revealed.
121.  The plangent command that the lover, the God of the song, any co-sufferers, should stay, stay, stay, stay, stay, stay, this is a hoping against hope. That God will not, in verse three, appear as “he” did in verse one only reinforces the solitude of our predicament, our “thrownness,” in Heidegger’s formulation, and without a conception of our Being, we are, you know, doomed to a lifetime of reading about Kardashians.
122.  That song, in Spektor’s composition, is the natural way to express this existential crisis, all of it crammed into the little rest, in verse three, between “Whysn’t it get better …” and “with time,” as if amply making clear that it just never gets better, it all should not be that surprising. She has revealed powerful and intuitive intellectual impulses in the past, as well as political chops, satirical imagination, musical capability that self-evidently transcends the genre of the popular song, any genre at all, country, rock and roll, snatches of rap, but of which her grace at the piano is an uppermost manifestation. Her voice is not show-offy, but is sophisticated, capable of the sublime, with a hint of Doris Day and also a little Bjork, with a lingering downtown quality, that still brings back the East Village all these years later, where Jeff Buckley first sang, and Soul Coughing, and Beck Hansen, et al., and then beyond this, there is something more still, something like the uncanny, that she holds back because looking at it too often is unsettling, nature’s gleaming.
123.  Does she want all of this in the song? Does she need to know what I have found here for this to be one the smartest, funniest, most unexpected, and most moving songs of the 21st century? Is it her own career (which seemed to be the subject of an earlier piece, the somewhat brutal “Obsolete”) that is the subject here? Her own marriage? Did she experience a night walking home like this, once, long ago, before she was a mom? Has she read Heidegger? Could she have known that this allegory about Being and Time and Abrahamic ideas of God would come out just as Russia would invade Ukraine? Is she home, right now, weeping about Ukraine, about the brutality of Putin and the unconcealment of malevolent dictatorship? Was it inevitable that the song would be read in historical context? Does she always have to be known as an immigrant? Or is the song really only about God, the one in the burning bush whom we encounter only in our nakedness and aloneness, only then knowing how given to us Being is, and for such a short time?
124.  Maybe the song is all these things. Maybe God includes all the interpretations, as in the Midrash. Maybe God wants all the songs, all the possible songs.
125.  It’s a sign of Spektor’s greatness that her song can withstand the attention.

Postscriptus 1: When Spektor sings “I loved you first,” in “Samson,” she prefigures God’s point of view in “Becoming (All Alone),” in which God’s position is that God loved first, and from this love were all others fashioned.

Postscriptus 2: Spektor also has a theory of mind (see, “Fidelity” and “Eet,”), which Heidegger did not, not later on anyway, and her mind is crowded with voices, visions, music, and it’s possible that her account of God therefore describes neurological affliction or even hallucination, or at least makes a metaphor from that place, the place of mind, which involves a completely different set of philosophical questions, from the one here, viz., the set involved with ontological (or ontic) questions. This theory of mind would require, perhaps, a completely different set of suppositions about “Becoming (All)(Alone).”

Postscriptus 3: And now let me see if I can practice tenderness, instead of merely writing about tenderness. In the beholding of the Midrash, mentioned in #124 above, it has occurred to me, in this my postscriptus, I have had a foreshadowing. My foreshadowing suggests that in truth the song, “Becoming (All Alone),” really is a song that supports a feminist reading, and in particular, I have come to see that this feminist reading of the song has something to do with the Annunciation, as it is discussed in Luke 1: 26-38, that is the portion of the New Testament that describes how Mary is made alert to the fact that she is to be made fecund by God, and that she will bear the son of God into the world. Spektor’s song is not exactly an Annunciation event, in that Spektor’s narrator has a beholding of God himself (and is thus a bit more like Moses in the book of Exodus). And yet: the passage in Luke (“The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Bethlehem named Nazareth”) is arresting with the same terror of the numinous that Moses feels in the presence of the burning bush, and the passage from Luke feels relevant here. Mary is “troubled” in the presence of Gabriel, despite his reassurence. She asks how it is possible that she will be with the child though she has not known any man, and Gabriel says: “The power of the highest will overshadow you.” (Italics mine.)
  While there is no spot in the translation of Exodus, nor in Luke, in which it is clear either that “I Shall Be that I Shall Be,” nor angel Gabriel, are singing to the respective humans, the ones who are having these numinous moments, it is possible. It is possible that we have taken the expressions of the divine as spoken events erroneously. As in Genesis 4, “because that Abraham hearkened to my voice,” meaning perhaps that he heard the signing, and in the Midrash it says, “Abraham knew even the new name which God will one day confer upon Jerusalem,” meaning perhaps that in singing he heard the future, or the things that were not otherwise apparent, heard the aletheia. As in: Hear attentively the noise of His voice. Why is it not possible that the experience of an actual God is noteworthy for singing, such that we understand the filled-with-Being to be a condition in which singing naturally takes place? So that song is a primary conveyance system for the religious experience?
  I’m wondering, too, how Gabriel is “sent” by God to do this work in the Annunciation. In frequent early paintings of the subject the holy spirit is pictured alongside Gabriel (as a “dove,” or similar), and for out purposes this “dove” is the messenger through which Gabriel understands his task, as the gleaming of nature is understood as an idea of the fact of nature, and in the work of art, and the idea of times is understood as an idea of time, and calling is a thing that happens, in language, and in the idea of language, and so it is that Gabriel understands his mission, and the task is put into motion, “according to God’s word,” as Mary says, in some translations.
  Caravaggio’s painting of this event, noteworthy for the tenebrism, of course, is also about the enormity of Gabriel’s wings, so unenfolded in the space as to terrify—for Mary it’s like being in a tiny enclosed space with the very idea of enormity—and in which the angel indicates to Mary that she is the one, thus depicting, in a way, not the annunciation itself (for not a word is spoken), but rather the feeling of the annunciation in the viewer, in which we are Mary and not Mary at the same time, and what is that Mary of that moment? What can we say of her but that she is the giver of being herself, the recipient of God’s love and trust, and the giver of the idea of being. The person who is average, quotidian, just another woman of the Jewish community, but also a person who can make life, and deliver life, and in this way mimic the giving and loving of God, even if, in the process, she is besieged by the considerations of her own unworthiness.
  Belatedly, I mean, I have considered that there is a feminist reading to be had in what could now be considered “Becoming All (Alone),” in which though no gender is ascribed to the narrator, she is a person capable of becoming a mother, which would make the encounter with God, perhaps, an annunciation, after a fashion; perhaps the song is about motherhood then, considered as a thing that flows directly from God. In this argument, the aloneness flows from the mother’s sense that she alone must do the work of labor and childbirth, without anything but a kind word and some encouragement from the Other. Mine is not a conventional reading of annunciation, but it is, perhaps, related in that a woman in “Becoming All (Alone)” has an interaction with God, and from this encounter truths are known by she who encounters, especially there are the truths about motherhood, childbearing, as purpose, as outflowing of Seinsfrage, as aletheia. Persons who give birth are not the source of all Being, but they are persons who know from which it comes, or can, though they have to produce this knowledge in uncertainty and aloneness, like the uncertainty of Mary’s son on the cross, that forsakenness (which Mary is alleged to behold). How much we owe the persons who give birth for going through that becoming, all alone!

Postscriptus 4: Last week, out of the blue, I encountered a YouTube video (one of two) that attempts to collect the vast supply of Spektor songs not otherwise included on albums. I included the link above, among “Pretexts.” This particular video is entitled “A Lesson on How Fleeting Preservation Is.” It is remarkable, in that the majority of the recordings edited together here seem to be homemade, and they thus depict the artist at home doing what she does when no one is much listening. Observations of these extraordinary recordings might include the following: a) the sound-of-the-words-is-as-important-as-the-meaning theory of Spektor is much in evidence here, almost the way Van Morrison seems to be repeating the words solely because of the delight of singing them when he sings, “the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love …” and b) Spektor’s voice is sort of even more beautiful when she’s alone at the piano, and c) the story, perhaps apocryphal, that other kids, acquaintances of Spektor, liked the singer, when she was youngish, because of how she made up songs all the time, wherever she was going, always making up songs; yes, this seems very plausible, and, d) this is another one of these singers whose demos are as important, or even more important, than the finished recordings, and, e) as the comments indicate on YouTube, almost all of these songs are about time, maybe all of her songs are about time.

Postscriptus 5: I think, on closer examination of the oeuvre, that there is another Regina Spektor song that speaks to God directly, “Laughing With,” which almost seems to be a rejoinder to Randy Newman’s “God’s Song,” much more dread-filled, much more filled with woe, here’s the bridge: “No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/No one laughs at God in a hospital/No one’s laughing at God in a war/No one’s laughing at God in a hospital/No one laughs at God in a war/No one’s laughing at God/When they’re starving or freezing/Or so very poor.” It turns on a dime, just when you think you know what it’s about, it’s not about that at all, laughing at, or laughing with, the mutability of it all being the point perhaps, the turning on the dime, laughing at, laughing with, landing, perhaps, on: no one’s laughing in the war.

Postscriptus 6: I have been thinking about this song for six months, and I have been giving up, unknowing after my all-knowing, I have been thinking that maybe I don’t know at all, and maybe that not-knowing is the beginning of feeling. Today, while I was trying to finish this essay about “(Becoming)(All)(Alone),” I went to take out the recycling, which means that I am a slob, I am mud, I am the person carrying out the trash, disheveled, postdated, in decline, in exile from all gregarity. I went out into the cool of a late June morning in a Boston suburb, the trees gesticulating above (in their fabulous unknowable tongue), and I put the recycling in the bin—it made that music of glass and aluminum and petrochemicals colliding with the metal exterior of the waste stream—and then I went trudging back to the building where I live, alone in this little alley, the guy who takes out the trash, a guy in the midst of unknowing, and there I heard music coming from where I do not know, some building nearby: and it was the Supremes and the Temptations, together, and I could hear, just then, Diana Ross saying, Just remember what I told you the day I set you free! And there the unfolding began.

–for Jim Miller
  1. Home, before and after (sic), officially released June TK, 2022.
  2. Here, e.g.,
  3. The entire first verse runs thus: “I went walking home alone,/Past all the bars and corner delis/When I heard God call out my name./And he said, ‘Hey, let’s grab a beer,/It’s awful late,/We both right here.’ And we didn’t even have to pay/‘Cause God is God,/And he’s revered.”
  4. Verse two runs thus: “Let the ones who want it bad,/Get all the things that make ‘em better./Let the ones who don’t care/Feel a thrill./And I just want to ride,/But this whole world/Makes me carsick./Stop the meter, sir,/You have a heart,/Why don’t you use it?”
  5. And if you think it’s too loud on this song, wait till you hear the next single from Home, before and after, entitled “Up the Mountain.”
  6. Translation by Richard Capobianco, 2014.
  7. My friend Bruce Bauman has a different and very rich reading of the imagery from the video: “My initial reaction to seeing the drawing of the tree, the clock and what I thought was a scroll - is that Spektor referencing the Kabbalah. After looking more closely, I realized the scroll is a cracked pitcher, which makes even more sense. Most of my observations come from reading many books by noted Kabbalah expert Gershom Scholem as well as other students of Kabbalah, with the understanding that Kaballistic interpretation is just that – interpretation. My interpretation of the drawings are as follows. The Tree is a reference to either or both "Tree of Life” or “Tree of Knowledge. ” ‘The Tree of Life was identified (even before the Zohar) with the written Torah, while the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil was identified with the oral Torah.’ ( The clock with its four hands in its way indicates a timelessness if not an annihilation of human time. ‘Rav Ashlag teaches us time is not an innate human sense. If we were to sit in a room with…no clock or watch, we would not be able to tell time.’ ( The cracked pitcher symbolizes what is known as “the shattering of the vessels.” ‘The shards and broken pieces of the shattered vessels—of my past mistakes and faulty judgments—keep getting in the way.’
  8. I’m speaking here of verse three, which is thus: “I went walking home alone/Past all the bars and corner delis,/When I asked God,/Please call, call my name. And I said, ‘Hey, let’s grab a beer,/It’s awful late,/I know you’re here./And we wouldn’t even have to pay/'Cause you are God,/And you’re revered.’/Why doesn’t it get better with time?/I’m becoming all alone again./Stay stay stay/I’m becoming all alone again/Stay stay stay, stay stay stay, stay stay stay.”