Kimberly Townsend’s “The History and the Heart of It” is an incredibly powerful song. Between her gorgeous voice (which is seriously pretty on her long notes), the steady accompaniment of the guitar, piano, and drums, and the heavy lyrics, this piece truly speaks to the soul.
Before I dive into the lyrics, I want to address the “it” in the title. Whatever “it” is remains unnamed throughout the lyrics and is left to us to interpret, which I find quite engaging. Townsend is not telling us what that “it” is explicitly, perhaps, because she doesn’t want us to have uniformity when it comes to what we take away from the song. A song with one inarguable message can be moving, however, one that is not bound to a single interpretation can be earth-shattering, as it appeals to more people via relating to our personal experiences.
Anyways, let’s start with the first two verses so I can tell you what I think:
I’ve been teetering the line
between turning off and being kind.
I’ve been begging for release,
‘cause it feels good but its not real and it’s not me.
Yes, it helps me some to settle,
but it crumbles up my peace.
Like a glow that’s only lit until you’ve sunk,
it helps some, but I get numb that I’m not free.
The first two lines set the tone immediately. It conveys the internal struggle of being a nice person versus just not caring, or “turning off,” as Townsend puts it. She continues to say that she wants release, and this “release” is likely referring to her line-teetering. She doesn’t want to be conflicted anymore because it’s not her. Although, saying that being conflicted “feels good” is a bit of a stretch, so perhaps her teetering is leaning towards the “turning off” side, while she thinks she should be on the other side.
Off to the chorus:
But I’m not opposed to moments
that stop me in my tracks.
I wish that I had known this
when I was holding back.
Those “moments” that stop her in her tracks are present when she is on the “being kind” side of the line. I came to this conclusion because of the regret in the second two lines, since her “holding back” is probably her “turning off.”
Verse 3 is interesting, because at this point, the piano ‒ although only with a few notes ‒ becomes far more pronounced:
I’ve been seeking out the empathy
of the shadows and the haze,
‘till I’m feeling sick falling to me knees,
‘cause I get stuck, it tears me up, I lose my place.
This stanza brings me right back to the beginning, as the “empathy” and the “shadows and the haze” easily parallel “being kind” and “turning off.” The internal conflict continues as she struggles to find the will to stop teetering on the line, and just cross over to the “being kind” side. She tries so desperately until she gets stuck in the shadows and the haze.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the piano becomes more center-staged than it was before here, and this could be just for the sake of style, but let’s be honest: is it ever just for one reason? I feel that the piano is symbolic of the “empathy” she’s searching for. Now, she is clearly telling us that she’s doing the best she can, and so the piano reflects this by asserting itself over the sounds of all the other instruments.
The chorus repeats and then we get the bridge two times:
‘Cause it amplifies my wicked doubt,
‘cause it shrinks ‘why’ and blurs my ‘how,’
‘cause it takes my fire, puts it out,
‘cause it changes why I breathe.
At this point the piano really shows up and puts the rest of the band in the background, and no, that is definitely not random. In this repeated stanza, she is identifying all the bad stuff “turning off” does to her, and basically calls it out for all its evil. Thus, as her “being kind” is highlighted by means of degrading the “turning off”, so too is the piano.
Then the song ends with the chorus again (bringing all the instruments back) for good measure.
So what is the mysterious “it?” To me, “it” is the internal struggle ‒ something everyone can relate to in their own unique way ‒ as is seems that Kimberly Townsend has told us her own with a beautiful piece of music.