Throughout Time Out Of Mind there has been a gradual development in the narrator’s mental state. This development not only continues in Can’t Wait, but speeds up considerably. At the beginning of the song the narrator seems desperate for his lover to return. He’s no longer kidding himself as he was on Make You Feel My Love that she hasn’t ‘made her mind up yet’. Now he accepts she has and this puts him at the end of his tether. Unexpectedly, however, by the close of the final verse his longing has all but disappeared.
The main aim of what follows is to assess various candidate explanations for this development. These are the narrator’s beginning to adopt a new perspective on the relationship, changes in his emotions and sexual desires, and the possibility of his simply having given up. There will be a little discussion of his lack of purposive behaviour, but some familiar character traits – such as his pessimism and lack of discrimination – will be taken for granted.
Time v Eternity
The song begins with a sense of urgency – ‘I can’t wait’ and ‘It’s late’. It’s being ‘way past midnight’ suggests that something the narrator wants is long overdue. We can assume that what he’s waiting for is for his lover to return. The refrain, too:
‘And I don’t know how much longer I can wait’
constantly reminds us that the narrator feels he can tolerate only a limited amount of further delay to his desire being satisfied.
And an even greater sense of urgency might seem to be created in the final verse by the observation:
‘… the end of time has just begun’
If time itself is ending, the narrator’s hopes are doomed.
By the end of the song, however, there’s been no panic. Contrary to our expectation all sense of urgency seems to have dissipated. The ending of time is apparently no more than ‘mighty funny’, and by this stage the narrator is capable of merely ‘strolling’ through his memories (‘the lonely graveyard of my mind’) as if he no longer has a care in the world. So in what sense has the end of time just begun if this doesn’t demand urgent action?
One possible answer is that ‘the end of time’ refers to timelessness, or eternity. If so, action cannot be urgent because action outside time cannot exist at all. Instead ‘the end of time’ can offer consolation to the narrator in that it gives a non-temporal permanence to things which he values, but which from a non-temporal perspective are transient. What matters isn’t that timelessness, or eternity, has literally just begun (that’s to view it from a temporal perspective) but that it exists. To what extent the narrator appreciates this, if at all, remains unclear.
The possibility of non-temporal, or eternal, existence also has consequences for the way some of the narrator’s other comments are to be interpreted. Just as with ‘the end of time has begun’, the perspective – temporal or eternal – makes a difference. So for example, when the narrator complains:
‘… after all these years you’re still the one’
it’s only a plea for sympathy if interpreted temporally. He’s saying he continues to love her in the way both he and she originally loved each other. But viewed non-temporally, the years drop out. We’re left with the non-temporal permanence of their original shared love.
The same applies to the statement:
‘I left my life with you somewhere back there along the line’
This can be interpreted non-temporally if ‘back there’ is given a purely spatial reference. The effect will be that the statement now expresses a different truth. It will no longer be saying that his life with her has an existence only in the past. The way is open for it to be seen as non-temporally permanent.
The possibility of his interpreting ‘the end of time’ in this way holds out some hope for the narrator. What matters ultimately is not the future of the relationship, but its eternal (timeless) nature. In the light of this, his claim that he’s ‘standing at the gate’ might be seen as meaning he’s on the threshold of eternity.
Whether the narrator has taken on the full significance of the end of time having begun is unclear. While it’s true he’s no longer bedevilled by a sense of urgency, it’s also the case that the primary meaning of the comments just quoted is temporal. If he were fully aware of its significance, it’s unlikely he’d dismiss it as ‘funny’ or, at the end of the song, still regret not having been ‘spared’.
It’s possible, then, that by ‘the end of time’ the narrator has in mind something unconnected with eternity. It’s plausible that it’s an allusion to the effect on him of the break-up. It would be an exaggeration, but it would be in character for him to exaggerate. There’s no obvious reason why he shouldn’t have come to accept that the relationship is over and such an acceptance would in itself explain the lack of urgency evinced at the end of the song.
There is some positive reason too for thinking he might have come to accept the end of the relationship. In Cold Irons Bound he’d bemoaned that his love was ‘taking such a long time to die’. By the end of Can’t Wait it might be that it has died. This seems likely given that in the next song, Highlands, his former relationship doesn’t even get a mention. It would also explain why he sees the end of time as ‘mighty funny’. Given the emotional turmoil he’s been in since the break up, it might well seem strange that his lover doesn’t matter to him anymore.
That he’s been able to accept that the relationship has ended would seem to be supported by a comparable change in his attitude towards sex.
When in Cold Irons Bound the narrator bemoans that his love is taking ‘such a long time to die’, he might be using ‘die’ to allude to reaching sexual climax.* His complaint would thus be about a lack of opportunity for sex as a result of his lover leaving. That that’s the case in the second verse here too is suggested by his answer to the question about what ‘keeps me loving you so’. In the very next line he says:
‘I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate’
The language is clearly sexual, suggesting that sex might his true motivation for wanting her back. The same applies to the expressions ‘the sweet love that we knew’, and even his use of the clichéd ‘honey’, given that ‘sweet death’ is a synonym for orgasm.
Support for the view that by the end of Can’t Wait his attitude towards sex has changed comes from there being an increasing lack of intensity in the sexual language he uses. ‘The air burns’ is less intense than the equally sexual ‘burning to the sky’ found in Till I Fell In Love With You. ‘I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate’, being purely anticipatory, is less intense again. Already it would appear that a gradual diminution in intensity is underway.
Finally, towards the end of Can’t Wait, his saying:
‘I’m looking for anything that will bring a happy glow’
suggests all intensity has gone. Indeed the final quotation’s ‘happy’ and ‘glow’ both have positive connotations suggesting he no longer sees his well-being in terms of sexual satisfaction.
Another meaning the narrator might have in mind when referring to ‘the end of time’ is his own death. If at the end of the song he’s come to accept that his life is over, this would explain the lack of urgency. That he allows death to dominate his thoughts is suggested by his regular use of dark terms such as ‘night’, ‘doomed’ and ‘graveyard’. When he tells his lover:
‘… my heart can’t go on beating without you’
in effect he’s telling her that by ending their relationship she’s killing him. He might even be interpreted as telling her that if he dies, it will be her fault. That he’d see her as the cause of his death is supported by the immediately preceding line which makes her responsible for the blow giving rise to his heart failure:
‘Your loveliness has wounded me, I’m reeling from the blow’
Since she wouldn’t literally be killing him, we’re left with the impression that the death he’s envisaging would be self imposed. Rather than having killed him literally, she’d have driven him to suicide.
On this view the narrator can end up taking one of two courses. He can either see his life in terms of eternity, and so recognise its non-temporal, permanent value, or reject it by killing himself. By the end of the song it’s still not clear which way he’s going to go.
Lack Of Purpose
Given his early sense of the need for urgency, it’s all the more ironic that the narrator still has no plan of action beyond ‘looking for anything that will bring a happy glow’. His strategy for reviving the relationship has been merely to wait for it to happen. Now that that’s failed, he’s got nothing to put in its place. If he does act, he acts aimlessly:
‘It doesn’t matter where I go anymore, I just go’,
and he’s indecisive:
‘…I don’t know what I would do’
It seems he’d allow a similar lack of purpose to dog any renewal of the relationship since he’d expect the two of them merely to ‘roam together’ rather than go anywhere in particular.
His excuse for just letting some things happen is that he can’t control himself:
‘I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true’
It’s true that he doesn’t control himself when it’s all too easy to wallow in misery, but merely not doing something is not the same as not being able to do it. The context of this quotation is the thought about what might happen if he saw his lover ‘coming’. If this is interpreted non-sexually to mean ‘approaching’, he seems to be saying much the same as In Cold Irons Bound where his reaction to seeing her was ‘One look at you and I’m out of control’. And yet on that occasion he seemed to be anything but ‘out of control’ – he did nothing. Even if ‘coming’ is interpreted sexually, it’s still seems unlikely he’d find it difficult to control himself given the waning of his sexual desire.
The narrator’s explanation for being unable to control himself is:
‘That’s how it is when things disintegrate’
– ‘things’ presumably referring either to the relationship. This is unconvincing. It’s more likely that being out of control would cause things to disintegrate than the other way round. It’s difficult to see why the disintegration of his relationship should cause him to lose control.
Although the narrator realises he needs to justify his lack of purpose, his appeals to lack of control and disintegration fail to do this.
By the end of the song the urgency which the narrator showed at the beginning has waned. The refrain has become an expression of helplessness rather than one of desperation. Although the urgency is associated with a desire to resume the relationship, including a sexual relationship, its dissipation is not obviously to the narrator’s moral credit. It’s not as a result of positive action on his part that he’s no longer so unhealthily obsessed, but simply that his love and his lust have died. He may even be seeing his own death as the most likely way of resolving his problems.
Nevertheless there are indications that a renewal of the narrator’s moral existence is a possibility. Such renewal would come about if he interpreted ‘the end of time’ as timelessness or eternity instead of as death. Viewed as timelessly permanent, the relationship – whose loss he bemoans when viewing it from an ordinary temporal perspective – will be seen to have a value which cannot diminish. Ultimately his moral survival will depend on whether he continues to be as aimless and focussed on death as he appears here, or whether these traits can give way to a full realisation of eternal permanence in the things he values.
* Compare Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eye”.