Even Green‘s most personal song – written about the same flame who inspired other top-shelf songs of the era, “O Girl” and “Do You Wanna Get High?” – is a product of the album’s commercial calculus and strophic simplicity.
In discussing the penultimate song on the record, “Glorious Day,” I praised this formulaic monomania for the trance-like state it can induce – probably unintentionally – over the course of a full album listen. (The reuse throughout of key lyrics and musical motifs is a crucial component of this effect, as with the faint déjà vu that accompanies the identical reappearance of the “Photograph” ohh ba-by in “Simple Pages.”) But “O Girlfriend,” as both the album’s conclusion and sole reach for some catharsis, is one place the spell maybe should have been broken.
For proof, we need only revisit the version performed in Toronto on July 14, 2002, a little over a year after the record’s release. Freed of Green’s tight production yoke, the guitars, bass, and drums expand into the ample breathing room of the Molson Amphitheatre, Cuomo’s voice and its melody sounding far less self-conscious. The album’s readymade guitar solos – note-for-note recitations of the verse melodies, as inspired by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – often work surprisingly well even when considered separately from their pleasantly hypnotic qualities. “O Girlfriend” is an exception: as the emotional climax of Green’s climactic song, a rote repeat of the verse’s melody – especially stretched to 16 bars, whereas most on the record are twice as economical – can’t help but ring hollow. But in Toronto, those extra bars give Cuomo plenty of room to improvise one of the prettiest, most expressive solos of his career. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the band felt no apparent need to ever play the song again.
Still, even in its studio iteration, “O Girlfriend” is moving. As with most of Green, the verse melody is as strong and graceful as any of his prior work – albeit truncated, simply reiterating one or two excellent ideas where Blue or Pinkerton songs would develop them. The autobiographical reference to “taking pills and mellowing out” together nicely balances the rest of the lyrics’ broad-stroke cliches (“Though we’d fight I loved you so much / Now I can’t feel your touch”) to paint a picture that is both personal and relatable – something that once came naturally to Cuomo, and after this song would prove a much bigger challenge for him. In the outro, there is plaintive humming where a younger Cuomo might have placed harmonica, but forgoing an intermediary feels like the right decision here. In sum, it’s very nearly one of the group’s brightest moments, but without that final live performance, it’d be much harder to tell how close they came.