Jacob Marley's Chain
Musical composition copyright ©1993 Geffen Records
Original material is copyrighted ©2003 and may not be reproduced
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Written and performed by: Aimee Mann
Album: Whatever (Imago Records, 1992; Geffen Records, 1993)
Produced by: Jon Brion
'Or would you know,' pursued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil
you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.
You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!'
— A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
This is one of the heaviest songs that Aimee Mann has ever written (and that's saying a lot). It's a quiet funeral march; a dignified and romantic melody for acoustic guitar, augmented by a rich string section. Sadly, the true beauty of the music can not be adequately conveyed in words, which is all I have to use on E2. However, I can tell you about the lyrics.
As most of us know, Jacob Marley was Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased business partner in Charles Dickens' masterwork, A Christmas Carol. Marley's ghost appears to Scrooge as a harbinger of three spirits who visit him in his dreams on Christmas Eve. Marley is shackled and bound by heavy chains, which he carries with him forever in the afterlife. His message to Scrooge is that life is filled with opportunities to do "the right thing" and create memories of beauty through philanthropic kindness to others. These missed opportunities in Marley's life represent the links in his chain. The links are regret, each one heavy in its own right, which combine to form a grave and ponderous weight.
To my ear, this song is about AIDS, and the terrible sorrow and regret it must be to carry the heavy shackles of this terminal illness. It was written over a decade ago, before today's cocktail of strong drugs which combat HIV were available in the First World, and reflects the gradual death sentence which millions of HIV-positive people still face. It is a song about the recognition of mortality brought about through careless mistakes, and the weight of those decisions upon the conscience of both the condemned and those who love them.
The raw humanity expressed in this song is quite humbling. Mann's sympathy for a dying friend is extrapolated into a sort of requiem for the decaying state of modern civilization. Like the regretful AIDS patient, those of us who recognize our societal failures as a species carry the same sort of chains that Jacob Marley bears. That is to say, on a personal level, that we are all guilty of small misjudgements in life which follow us around (even if only in our hearts), and exemplify our imperfections. Sometimes our mistakes can be absolved, and sometimes it's not that easy. Sometimes our failures can take our very lives away from us, and there is no recourse beyond our regret.
Be careful out there.
Well today a friend told me the sorry tale
As he stood there trembling and turning pale
He said each day's harder to get on the scale
Sort of like Jacob Marley's chain
But it's not like life is such a veil of tears
It's just full of thoughts that act as souvenirs
For those tiny blunders made in yesteryears
That comprise Jacob Marley's chain
Well I had a little metaphor to state my case
It emcompassed the condition of the human race
But to my dismay, it left without a trace
Except for the sound of Jacob Marley's chain
Now there is no story left for me to tell
So I think I'd rather just go on to hell
Where there's a snowball's chance that the personnel
Might help to carry Jacob Marley's chain
Help to carry Jacob Marley's chain
Carry Jacob Marley's chain