Skinny Love is a 2007 song by the indie band Bon Iver. The haunting ballad is known both in its original form and from its 2011 cover by British songstress, Birdy. It has become extremely popular not just because of its musical elements but also because of its complex—and at times, baffling—lyrics.
The Background Of “Skinny Love”
This track was written by Bon Iver member, Justin Vernon. The composition was the result of a long period of isolation in 2006. During this time, he spent several winter months at his father’s log cabin in rural Wisconsin.
He was recovering from the end of a relationship as well as an extended fight with mononucleosis, which had serious effects on his health. This was when he wrote several songs, one of which would go on to become Skinny Love.
What Is “Skinny Love”?
The song is about two people in a deteriorating relationship. They can see that their time together is rapidly coming to an end. Yet, they still hold on in vain.
Vernon explained that “skinny love” refers to a love that is starving because it lacks any substance. It is fragile and without foundation. The lovers maintain the relationship not because they love one another but because they feel that they need it.
The singer continues to ask for love, attention, and affection from his significant other. However, at this point, it is only a matter of time. The lovers seem to be in a standoff, with each of them too afraid to end the relationship. Some of the lyrics imply that the singer just wants her to go ahead and “kill” their relationship because he is scared to do it himself.
“Pour a Little Salt”
The first verse of the song includes the line:
Pour a little salt, We were never here
There are several theories about the meaning of the lines. Most notably, fans have pointed out that salt has healing properties and is often used to speed up the recovery process on flesh wounds. However, it also stings when applied to wounds, meaning that healing is painful.
The implication may be that the dying relationship is like a festering wound. Yet, the singer tries to brush off the seriousness of the injury, saying that all it needs is a little salt.
Another theory draws a parallel to the ancient practice of salting fields to “curse” cities. By throwing salt through the fields, people ensured that nothing could grow there. This offers another perspective in regard to the theme of hunger and starvation. It may be that the singer is suggesting a kind of quick death for the relationship—a way to finish it off since it is close to the end, anyway.
“Sink Of Blood And Crushed Veneer”
The first verse also includes the line:
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer
These lyrics have long perplexed fans, and the members of Bon Iver have never dived into an extensive analysis of the words. However, listeners have come up with many of their own theories.
A veneer is a thin, faux wood covering, often used for walls, doors, or decorative molding. The line conjures up images of someone punching a wall in anger or frustration, then washing their bloody hand in the sink, along with pieces of wood.
“I Told You To Be Patient”
The chorus is a repeated line of the singer reminding his significant other of his past demands. It seems that he has had many requirements from their relationship, including patience, kindness, and contentment.
It becomes clearer that these demands are no longer holding up. His motivation in the relationship is obviously selfish; he isn’t with this person because he loves her but rather because she provides him with qualities he thinks he needs in his life.
Some fans have pointed out that the chorus almost seems to be a contrast to the text of 1 Corinthians 13, which is often read at weddings:
“Love is patient, love is kind, It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
It emphasizes more clearly that this relationship is not powered by love but rather by self-interest.
Themes Of Debt
The final lines of the chorus follow:
And in the morning I’ll be with you
But it will be a different kind
And I’ll be holding all the tickets
And you’ll be owning all the fines
The singer seems to be implying that, although the lovers are content together in a sexual context, they wake up and realize that they are not the same people they thought they were. What is more, he recognizes that his significant other has made a sacrifice by staying with him throughout the night.
In this way, he understands that he owes her a debt and that she has power over him because of this. This is described with a comparison to tickets and fines, as though the singer has broken too many rules to think that they are on equal footing.
“Suckle On The Hope”
One of the most perplexing—and frequently misheard—lines of the song might be the line:
Suckle on the hope in light brassieres
Many fans have wondered what on earth Vernon could have meant with this line, which combines sexual imagery with that of a nursing mother.
The implication is that sex is fueling the relationship, which is on its last legs. When the lovers are intimate, they can fool themselves into feeling like they still love each other the way they used to.
Fans have also noted the use of the word “suckle,” which implies drawing nourishment from a breast like a baby nursing from its mother. He compares engaging in sexual acts to a child being nourished, suggesting that the “fuel” for the relationship is physical intimacy. However, one also wonders how much nourishment they can really get from a starving source.
There is also a stereotype, which might be referenced in the line, that a woman keeping her brassiere on during sex implies that she is not being truly intimate or that she is closed off from her partner.
“At The End Of All Your Lines”
A relationship based on self-interest can lead to finding your identity in your significant other, and that seems to be the case for the singer. In the final chorus, he asks “who the hell was I?” and tells his lover that she has reached the end of her lines. This implies that the two of them feel like they are taking part in an act as though they are characters in a play. Now that their script has reached its end, they no longer know what to say.
Rumors About Vernon’s Relationship
When Vernon wrote the song, he had recently ended a relationship with Christy Smith. During an interview several years later, he said that the song was not written specifically about her. Rather, it was generally about his experience of being in a relationship and knowing that it was gradually starving to death.
Skinny Love remains one of Bon Iver’s most well-known songs. The heartbreak evident in the melody is something that almost everyone has experienced before.
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