The words of Circuit Des Yeux’s song ‘Walking Toward Winter’ that are printed on the sleeve of their 2021 album, -io, are not quite the words that the band’s leader Haley Fohr sings. This is what moves me most about this song, and the bar is high. Other affecting elements of ‘Walking Toward Winter’ are the synthesizer, percussion, bass and strings arrangement, Fohr’s supple singing, the song’s printed lyrics, and its title. Did I miss anything?
‘Walking Toward Winter’ is a song that I don’t want to over-explain with a backstory, as if it has one literal narrative meaning. No song does because every song is a dialogue between singer and listener. There are a few interviews with Haley Fohr from the time -io came out that discuss losses that she had experienced that drove the creation of songs like ‘Walking Toward Winter’, ‘Stranger’, and ‘Neutron Star’. I avoided reading them because I don’t want my connection to a song to be influenced outside the bubble of the song itself.
Title-wise, walking towards winter is a courageous but dubious act. December, which some have wished out loud would be assassinated, doesn’t need us to move towards it. It will show, right on time, after November. I don’t know about you, but this dimming, hushing period of the year is not one I relish. When crocuses, elder, and birdsong return in Spring, I often think back to the quicksand it’s been since Halloween and wonder: how the hell did I get through that? But it’s not like you have a choice, unless you choose to walk toward the cold, leafless and lifeless. You can only do that when winter is a metaphor, although the song seems to be hitting me hard again as our days literally darken. November Rain? November pain more like.
In ‘Walking Toward Winter’, Fohr sings about someone to whom she is close. She opens with “i’ve got my favourite thing / right beside me / and i am not afraid”. She does not specify what that “thing” is, but it may be her friend or a memento or memory of that friend. Fohr notes that while she is not afraid, she is not invulnerable: “i don’t want to go through all the seasonal hardening / cause you know there’s an avalanche that lives inside of me / and it’s ready to flow”. Fohr sings with rich texture but with immaculate containment, managing the avalanche, unlike, say, in ‘Stranger’, in which her singing is more volcanic than even the most dynamic form of frozen.
Who Fohr means by “you” is deliberately not clear. This “you” can be her friend or the listener or both. But later in the song she sings in the second person to someone whose hand she holds, who is in the song not outside it: “i’m breaking as your finger fit into mine… trying not to face / the storm that’s arrived”. She is “frozen just by the idea of taking a step / the fear of falling through, of finally settling in”. In a song about winter, you wonder where this step must be taken. In my mind, Fohr and her friend are at the edge of a lake they must cross, covered in ice that may crack, although “settling in” suggests an exhausting suffocating snowdrift like the quicksand above. The published song lyric concludes “walking toward winter hand in hand with you / our voices meet in the dark / first close, then closer, then your words become mine / and i’m walking toward winter with you”.
Again, I don’t want to imply that there is any definitive narrative meaning, but what I hear in Fohr’s aching melody and vocal tone as well as in her words and the song’s taut, resonant arrangement, is that the person whose hand Fohr was holding is gone by the end of their walk. They are at the edge of the ice together and then she is alone. Their voices find each other, then her friend’s voice dissipates and disappears. Still, though her friend leaves, she keeps going: “I’m walking toward winter with you”.
Although ‘Walking Toward Winter’ is a desperately sad song, there are a couple of things that I have observed about the song that provide me with solace.
One is a completely subjective, oddball, and refutable observation, which is that Fohr’s lyric writing in lower case, including “i”, is reminiscent of that of the great poet Lucille Clifton. Clifton wrote The Death of Fred Clifton about the death of her husband in 1984, and she wrote it in his voice, with the timing of the poem bridging his passing from this life to—wherever. The full text is:
and I saw with the most amazing
so that I had not eyes but
and, rising and turning,
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
Oh, at last! I mean—Lucille makes this dying thing sound pretty attractive.
Another is there are what feel like meaningful, song-reframing disparities between the printed lyrics and the sung lyrics. For example, she added a “that” to, and removed an “of”, from the line “cause you know there’s an avalanche that lives inside of me”, which became “cause you know that there’s an avalanche that lives inside me”. The lyrical differences are not huge but I think they mean two separate things.
Firstly, the fact that what is printed is not what was sung tells me that ‘Walking Toward Winter’ was vibrantly alive as Fohr recorded it, which means that the love declared in the song also was.
Secondly, the song ends with three words that are not on the lyric sheet at all. The final words, after “i’m walking toward winter with you” are “I love you”, or, sotto voce as they are, “(I love you)”. That they are not included on the lyric sheet means to me that the words were added as recording was happening by a person who just could not, despite her capacity to curtail emotional avalanche, curb her cascading love for her lost friend. Why is this important? Maybe it’s not. The subject of the song is gone and the singer is grieving. But it feels important.
These words are not as they are on the sleeve because Haley Fohr changed them in the moment, unable not to. For a song about approaching and encountering death, ‘Walking Toward Winter’ is so alive, so pulsing, so present, that it almost undoes death. Walk towards winter all you like but winter is not the end. Seasonal hardening must segue into seasonal softening. Dylan said “Death is not the end” and Haley Fohr’s incandescent whisper says that here. Crocuses know when to show and they always will. As Mark Hollis already told us.
And yet I’ll gaze
The colour of spring
Immerse in that one moment
Left in love with everything