Helpless – k.d. lang

Song: Helpless
Album: Hymns of the 49th Parallel
Performer: k.d. lang
Writer: Neil Young
Year: 2004

k.d. lang is another notable Canadian singer-songwriter. She gained commercial success in the 80’s but remained connected to her roots in Canada. This album is evidence of that connection. She covers songs by Canadian writers like Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and this song by Neil Young.

Lang’s interpretation of the song differs from the recordings I’ve heard of Neil Young. Hers is more orchestrated. There is an eighth note pedal on the tonic that continues throughout the verses that gives her version a strong sense of expectancy. I think that’s a feeling I really enjoy when listening to a song. It gives me the sensation of restlessness I might have felt on Christmas Eve as a kid. That restlessness in the verse takes you into a chorus which has big open acoustic guitar, tight harmonies, and string orchestration. The chorus is a great release to the tension in the verses.

The song is written like a love letter to Canada. It opens by immediately revealing the setting, “There is a town in north Ontario…” it’s assumed that maybe this is the narrator’s hometown. The song continues with a detailed description of the town and notes that thoughts of the place leave the narrator helpless. While the song could be specific to Canada, I feel that it reaches farther than that and digs straight down to the feeling of yearning for childhood, or the past, or anybody’s hometown.

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream, comfort, and memory to spare,
And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

k.d. lang’s deeply expressive alto voice masterfully conveys the intricate emotions bound up in the lyrics of this song. Each time I listen, I’m drawn up into the wave of feelings I used to feel so strongly when I would have to leave my hometown in Missouri to return to college. It’s such a strange thing to leave the place you were raised and leave the people you love. This song is a sonic representation of how it feels to long for home, familiarity, and comfort.

– Kori Caswell

If you want to check out all the songs featured in the “Women in Music” section of this blog, check out this Spotify playlist: