Today’s Song: Glass Animals and the Meaning of “Life Itself”

Screenshot from "Life Itself" by Glass Animals

Be like them, lean back and breathe

A long time ago, I learned to not take artists’ descriptions of their own music at face value. Firstly, there is always more to art than words alone can capture – hence the reason the artist creates that music in the first place; it should be allowed to speak for itself. Secondly, sharing full meanings completely breaks that fourth wall, taking away from any mystery or individual interpretation of the music. Listen to any Beatles interview from the 1960s and you’ll find they never revealed the true stories and meanings behind their songs: By and large, they left things to the listener’s imagination. As a result, we’ve been analyzing and reanalyzing those songs for over fifty years!

Likewise, when Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley says the group’s catchy new song “Life Itself” is about a “guy who was born a bit strange, and struggles to become part of society. Because of that, he spends more time alone in his own head, getting stranger, and it becomes an awful cycle of doom,” I must take his words with a healthy degree of skepticism.

That’s not because they’re not true; I do not doubt Bayley’s concise, blog-friendly description of his music. However, there is more to Glass Animals and “Life Itself” than meets the eye – certainly more than Bayley is willing to divulge to the average listener.

Daddy was dumb said that I’d be something special
Brought me up tough but I was a gentle human
Said that he loved each of my two million freckles
When I grew up was gonna be a superstar

I can’t get a job so I live with my mom
I take her money but not quite enough
I sit in the car and I listen to static
She said I look fat but I look fantastic

Watch: “Life Itself” – Glass Animals


The lyrics to “Life Itself” read like a memoir: Indeed, the narrator does seem to be destined for a “cycle of doom” as Bayley relates a tale of innumerable struggles: Never living up to one’s parent’s expectations; unfit for work; staying at home with one’s mother; waking up in strange places.

How to Be a Human Being - Glass Animals

How to Be a Human Being – Glass Animals

Of course, I say these are “struggles” because that is how I perceive them. What makes “Life Itself” so special is the fact that it is delivered as the subject’s personal account of himself; facts and feelings dance together in this story fit for a therapist’s couch, but remorse about the situation is not one of those feelings. In fact, the narrator strictly denies outside influence and critique through the pre-chorus line, “She said I look fat but I look fantastic.”

Life is a personal journey; we see ourselves and our experiences differently from how we see others and their experiences. Social psychology teaches much about the differences in perception: The fundamental attribution error (also known as the “correspondence bias”) relates a tendency, when explaining another’s behavior, to place inappropriate emphasis on internal (dispositional – trait/ability-based) characteristics, rather than on external (situational) factors. Essentially, we are more likely to judge someone else’s actions based on who they are rather than what they’re going through, whereas we are more likely to judge our own actions based on what we’re going through. Thus, one look at a homeless person is enough to assume he or she messed up in life; all we know is what we see, though. We don’t really know the truth. One cannot turn off correspondence bias and dispositional vs situational thinking, but one can learn to monitor one’s interpersonal judgments and assumptions about others.

I’m waking up, lost in boxes outside Tesco
Look like a bum sipping codeine Coca-Cola
Thought that I was northern Camden’s own Flash Gordon
Sonic ray gun, gonna be a superstar

When listening to “Life Itself” for the first, second and third time, one generally jumps to conclusions about this character who sits in the car and listens to static, “waking up lost in boxes outside Tesco.” Those reactions are entirely warranted – even the narrator is aware of these externally-perceived shortcomings. Something’s up – a lack of ambition, perhaps? He certainly lives in dreams that don’t correlate to reality, but there’s more to this song than the narrator’s individual actions. Only upon detaching one’s own expectations and relying solely on Glass Animals to paint a narrative can the song’s deeper meanings take shape.

We can learn a lot once we stop and listen. Consider the chorus:

Come back down to my knees
Gotta get back, gotta get free
Come back down to my knees
Be like them, lean back and breathe

Being on one’s knees is a position symbolic of begging, but the urgency in Bayley’s voice suggests different intent. “Gotta get back, gotta get free,” he projects, exhibiting internal desire for release. “Be like them, lean back and breathe.” Take all these external pressures, roll them into a ball, and throw that ball away. As individuals, we face and deal with our individual problems on a daily basis. When we see others, we don’t typically see them for all their individual problems. We assume that others (“be like them”) are better at handling their situations (“lean back and breathe”) than we are at handling our situations. Weighed down with expectations and judgments from everyone around him, the main character expresses a wish to “shrug it off,” so-to-speak, but evidently has trouble doing so.

Nevertheless, that’s the goal: To try to live a life unburdened by societal pressures. To take it all in, and flush it all away. Is it a particularly healthy way to go about life? We may not be at liberty to make that judgment.

Screenshot from Glass Animals' "Life Itself" music video

Screenshot from Glass Animals’ “Life Itself” music video

Glass Animals avoid taking sides on “Life Itself,” leaving any verdict or conclusions about the narrator’s story strictly up to the listener. Plenty of questions arise as a result: Are Glass Animals serious about this person’s story? Alternatively, do they intend to portray it in a jovial manner? Is it supposed to be comical? Does this person care about his situation? Does he want to improve?

Perhaps Glass Animals just want to present an unabridged tale of “Life Itself.”

Maybe this specific story is exaggerated, but suppose it isn’t? “Life Itself” can be interpreted as a snapshot of life, in some shape or form. It’s a naked truth – a truth our family-oriented, G-rated society so often attempts to shield its eyes from, or “fix” blindly so as to avoid confrontation. One anonymous comment posted in response to the song lyrics reads, “I’m autistic, and I’m having trouble with employment. This song sounds like it’s about me.” The band couldn’t ask for a more powerful reception.

In many ways, “Life Itself” is a song for the “underdogs” (a privileged word) of society – the shunned-from-conventional-life minority, some of whom brought themselves to that place, others of whom had little control over their fate. Glass Animals have the flexibility to accommodate both groups under their umbrella: Their message can speak to (and for) those who are struggling to fit in, as well as those who couldn’t care less. Either way, this song is a mantra and an anthem: “Life Itself” is about embracing yourself for who you are, and not for what society sees you to be.

Glass Animals © Neil Krug

Glass Animals © Neil Krug

Glass Animals made a nosedive into the human psyche on “Life Itself” and came out with moving results. Their forthcoming sophomore album How to Be a Human Being, out August 26 via Wolf Tone and Caroline International, reflects an anchoring on the band’s part to focus more on human elements in their subject matter than they did on 2014’s “exotic” debut record Zaba. In fact, many of Dave Bayley’s lyrical ideas came from live recordings of people saved on his phone, as though he’d been operating as some sort of “roaming journalist,” according to the band’s press release. “I try to sneakily record people, and I have hours and hours of these amazing rants from taxi drivers, strange people we met outside of shows, people at parties. People say the strangest shit when they don’t think they’re ever gonna see you again,” says the Glass Animals frontman.

“Life Itself” marks a big step for Glass Animals as the critically-acclaimed band discovers a new way to connect with its audience. It’s a fresh showing from a group celebrated largely for its music – and now, for its lyrics. “Life Itself” is certainly open to interpretation: Rather than evoking strong standalone emotions, Glass Animals’ new single implores us to think about how we see others differently from how we see ourselves, and to celebrate ourselves for who we are. “Keep calm and carry on,” as the saying goes.

In retrospect, Dave Bayley isn’t wrong in describing this song as being about a “guy who was born a bit strange,” but we can certainly learn a lot more from “Life Itself” if we peak below its surface. Thankfully, a full instruction guide is on its way.

Get ready for How to Be a Human Being, and catch Glass Animals on their 2016 tour!
How to Be a Human Being - Glass Animals

How to Be a Human Being – Glass Animals (out 8/26 via Wolf Tone / Caroline International)

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:: Glass Animals :: Tour 2016 ::

06/15 – London, UK @ ICA
06/16 – Hilvarenbeek, NL @ Best Kept Secret Festival
06/20 – Berlin, DE @ Kantine Am Berghain
07/01 – Marmande, FR @ Garorock Festival
07/05 – Melborune, AU @ 170 Russell
07/06 – Melborune, AU @ 170 Russell
07/07 – Brisbane, AU @ The Triffid
07/09 – Sydney, AU @ Metro Theatre
07/15 – Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
07/16 – Birmingham, AL @ Sloss Music & Arts Festival
07/17 – Kansas City, MO @ KRBZ Beach Ball
07/18 – Oklahoma City, OK @ Criterion Theater
07/20 – Morrison, CO @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre
07/22 – St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant
07/23 – Detroit, MI @ Mo Pop Festival
07/24 – Toronto, ON @ WayHome Music & Arts Festival
08/07 – Oxfordshire, UK @ Wilderness Festival
08/19 – Hasselt, BE @ Pukkelpop
09/03 – Laois, IE @ Electric Picnic
09/24 – Raleigh, NC @ The Ritz
09/25 – Washington, DC @ Echostage
09/26 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
09/28 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
09/29 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
09/30 – Boston, MA @ Blue Hills Bank Pavilion
10/01 – Ithaca, NY @ State Theater
10/05 – Milwaukee, WI @ The Riverside
10/06 – Chicago, IL @ The Riv
10/07 – Minneapolis, MN. @ Myth
10/11 – Seattle, WA @ Paramount
10/12 – Vancouver, BC @ Queen Elizabeth Theater
10/13 – Portland, OR. @ Schnitzer
10/16 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Greek

Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com

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  • T-tray

    Very astute observations about this song. I have heard this over and over on the radio and think there is a lot going on in there. It reminds me of someone disabled psychologically and/or made emotionally dependent upon an abusive relation from an early age. That person or people (mothers and fathers in the song) disable to make themselves look or feel better. The abused person might have decent self-esteem on their own but keep being “cut back down to their knees” by those who have bought the narrative provided by the abusive relation. I’ve seen this cycle happen, I know people for whom this is/was a way of life. It’s common enough here in the states but I imagine it’s worse in UK and European countries where families tend to cluster together more.