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A Song of Two Lovers

Elie Gould explores the captivating real-life love story behind the lyrics of Alt-J's 'Taro'.

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Image Credit: Gerda Taro, Creative Commons

Recently, I stumbled across an old favourite of mine, ‘Taro’ by Alt-J. It immediately forced me back into 2012 in what was an odd moment of déjà vu. I always remembered loving the style of Alt-J; as someone who listened to a fair few indie rock bands, I appreciated their experimental approach. I find their music very easy to go back and binge-listen to; their songs just don’t get old or overdone, especially in the case of ‘Taro’.

Each sound is beautifully arranged in a style of folktronica that is so bizarre it just works. A great example of their unusual innovation on ‘Taro’ is their use of a roll of tape on an electric guitar to mimic a sitar. This alternative soundscape is pervasive on Alt-J’s album, An Awesome Wave. While 'Taro’ is unique in sound, it retains the same purpose of telling a story that is present throughout the album. For example, ‘Fitzpleasure’ was inspired by Hubert Selby’s novel about the brutality of urban life, Last Exit to Brooklyn. In this sense, like the rest of the album, ‘Taro’ is a medium to tell stories that Alt-J find interesting, essential and perhaps overlooked. It was only recently though that I started to focus on the lyrics rather than getting entirely sidetracked by how the music sounded. Now, I understand why Alt-J have been praised so highly for their postmodern lyricism.

‘Taro’ tells the intriguing love story of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. The pair first met in Paris after Taro was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1934 because of her Jewish faith. She became his assistant, and together they began to document wars through photography. Taro is thought to have been the first female photojournalist to report on the front lines. Reflecting on this song, I believe that it began to resonate with me specifically because of this intriguing backstory; my own aspiration to be a war journalist makes Taro not only a pioneer but also a personal hero of mine. Both Taro and Capa went on to lead extraordinary lives in this field: Taro was worshipped as an anti-fascist hero and Capa as the most celebrated war photographer of the century.

Despite the title of the song, the subject of its focus is Capa’s death while he was documenting the First Indochina War in Vietnam, a precursor to the Vietnam War that began a year later. Each line of the first verse painstakingly documents the moment of Capa stepping on a land mine while attempting to photograph soldiers.

“A violent wrench grips mass, rips light, tears limbs like rags”

Tragically explicit lyrics are overlaid with melancholic music so that at first they seem muffled until you decide to take a closer look. While on the surface the lyrics seem to mean one thing, the truth is not apparent until you take a closer look.

Things become more vividly realistic with the description of the moment when Capa’s torso was separated from his leg in the blast:

“From medic, from colleague, friend, enemy, foe, Him five yards from his leg.”

I believe the lyrics here are not meant to be read independently in the context of Capa’s death but in conjunction with Taro’s character, who died seventeen years prior while covering the Battle of Brunete during the Spanish Civil War.

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The last known photo taken by Robert Capa captured moments before his death.

The initial blast may have thrown Capa from his life, but he lands closer to Taro in doing so, hence the title of the song. The lyrics here do not focus on Capa’s death but how he is reunited with his lost love. It is not a happy song and neither is it meant to be tragic, instead it’s about fate. This notion of accepting fate is touched upon in particular in the line,

“Do not spray into eyes – I have sprayed you into my eyes”.

A gentle reminder that Capa understood the dangers of his job, even more so after Taro’s death. However, this did not stop him; he had already accepted the consequences of his actions. Albeit a morbid song, it captures the idea of death in a romantic sense. Ultimately, ‘Taro’ is a reminder from Alt-J that there is beauty everywhere, even in tragedy.

The entire album, An Awesome Wave, will always be on my most recent list. However, ‘Taro’ will stand with me in a different way- it’s beauty and meaning will forever make it a 10/10 for me.

To listen to ‘Taro’ accompanied by photos taken by Robert Capa follow the link below: https://youtu.be/RWVqtOD9D6M

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