When Fitzgerald described Dutch sailors crossing the Atlantic to see the ‘fresh green breast of the new world’ he was alluding to a long tradition of male poets blazoning breasts as rolling foothills. Problematic for many reasons, the blazon as a literary technique breaks a body into parts and describes each one individually with a series of metaphors. It is a dismantling that in the past has been dominated by an objectifying male gaze.
Alt-J draw on this tradition with their song ‘Warm Foothills’, but this song attempts to redeem a metaphor that remains tainted by its misogynistic origins.
The song does this firstly by including a female voice, which, together with the male voice, create the sense of the poem. To say they ‘share lines’ is to miss the fact that they are both engaged in the actual creation of the lines. They make sense units symbiotically, relying on each other to both create and interpret the world they inhabit.
The red words in this image are spoken by the man, the blue by the woman, and the green is where they speak together:
The first vocal line actually only has two notes (just as there are two lovers), but is enlivened by the octave jumps that take place between the male and female voices. These jumps don’t break the continuity of the lines, and yet give very simple melodies a unique quality of simple excitement. The voices dance between each other to converge in the moment where the physical body is described first in ‘like sternum to button’. The two voices reflect the two bodies that dance and converge, and that are in contact in the climactic ‘pinches’ of this first verse. The voices communicate with each other just as bodies do in love, and they, collectively, are the force creating the beautiful enchanted world of the lyrics.
Similar patterns, of dancing and convergence, happen throughout the second verse:
Instead of the body being the focus of this second verse, it’s a natural scene, with a body of water, ‘weeds and larger leaves’, ‘blue dragonflies’ and the sky into which the balloon floats after the end of the verse. The bodies/voices of the lovers rely on each other to sustain this world: this verse would not make sense, or even be possible, without both people. This is a beautiful reflection of the way that the world becomes enchanted in love – a world that is made collectively, with its existence relying on the other person to remain enchanted.
This relationship between the voice, body and world of two lovers is the second way this song redeems the breasts-as-warm-foothills metaphor from its problematic origins. A connection is drawn between the ‘warm foothills’ of the lover’s body and the ‘warm foothills’ of the natural world in love. The ‘warm foothills’ of the title represent both the body and the world, but the image has more in it than that. The warm foothills of the voice/body create and sustain the warm foothills of the world.
This is far from the objectification we see in the blazon. The emphasis here is on the relationship between two speaking bodies, and the way they reciprocally create a beautiful and enchanted world.
The body is not what is represented, it is what is representing. It is not created, it is creative.
With only eight lines of verse and a brilliant stylistic insight, this song creates a complex and complete vision of a beautiful loving relationship. It is idealised, sure, but ideals this beautiful are worthwhile despite the potential for them to be called naive.
I’m not sure this song succeeds in redeeming the warm foothills metaphor. After all, to argue that it does required quite a bit of attention and analysis. But who would have thought that when you were 14 and thought you were ‘alternative’ because you couldn’t get enough of ‘Breezeblocks’, you were sleeping on Alt-J’s lyrics the whole time.