Often covered, never bettered, John Prine’s ‘Speed of the sound of loneliness’ carries an emotional weight that sets it well apart from the standard Stetson country set. Like most country songs, it’s about misery and heartache, but its take on the sensation of loneliness assures it the status of a modern standard. Not unusual for songs that do attain classic status, Prine (pictured) makes use of oblique and contradictory imagery to convey the emotional exhaustion of marital breakdown: “you’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness, you’re out there running just to be on the run.”
Attempting to escape loneliness by running away from it (physically, or in other ways), as if it could ever be outflanked, provides the emotional core of the song, a sentiment set to music in the great tradition of American country greats such as Hank Williams and George Jones. Just like the greatest songs of these singers, ‘Speed of…’ captures a home truth, in this case the truth that loneliness has a terrible way of coming back, regardless of how much you try and dismiss or ignore it.
The only solution to loneliness that can work in the long run is a sense of belonging, a sensation that soothes the worries of isolation and invisibility. The avoidance of loneliness, in fact, is one of the key reasons why people are so desperate to be accepted and acknowledged (the desire for popularity, often dismissed as the concern of the fickle, will be a topic for another day). Finding yourself caught on the outside of the relational world, shunted out and excluded (by self or other), is like being cast adrift from the world of meaning. Loneliness shatters meaning, turning the relational world upside down.
Loneliness is the flipside of belonging, bringing with it a world of pain. And all pain, whether physical or emotional, has health-related consequences. No wonder then that loneliness is now seen as a killer, an emotion that has severe repercussions for physical (as well as emotional) health. Loneliness is arguably the relational equivalent of cancer, a progressive disease that corrodes the sense of self and community. But to find a cure for it, the relational world must be taken more seriously, even to the point of being examined forensically. Otherwise, the mistakes of the past keep repeating themselves. Looking in the wrong places is the policy equivalent of being out there running just to be on the run.