Breakups aren’t always dramatic. They don’t always involve cheating, or fighting, or Adam Driver punching a hole through the wall. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of two people coming together a while before drifting back apart. And sometimes, that hurts worse than blowing a relationship to pieces in an acrimonious fight. It’s one thing to do something as painful as a breakup when you don’t care if the other person gets hurt. But what if you don’t want to hurt them? What if you have to break their heart for the sake of your own happiness?
“Count to Four,” a song by Ollie West & the Wildflowers, takes a look at this predicament with understatement and grace. This is not the kind of song that turns personal strife into Biblical melodrama; Ollie West is not Bruno Mars howling about how it will rain every day if his lover leaves him. Instead, the tone is plain-spoken and honest, even dignified. The song is about the narrator receiving a note from his partner, saying that they “have to go.” That phrasing is important: this is not something either party seems to want, but rather something that at least one of them thinks must happen.
This note isn’t angry or bitter in the slightest; it tries to reassure our narrator that his ex still cares about him very much, and they seem to believe that they’re doing this for the narrator’s own good. “I’m sorry I can’t bring you/all the joy that you brought to me,” the note reads. “I’ll have you count to three/I’ll drink my cup of tea and/Walk out the door.” But then, an enigmatic ending: “I’m going to count to four/I won’t be here on four.” It’s unclear if this is the narrator and his partner conversing, or if this is still just the partner’s letter being read aloud. Even so, the idea behind it is clear: they want this to last a little bit longer, even if it’s only for a second.
The lyrics tell a compelling story, but it’s the music that makes “Count to Four” so poignant. Orchestral arrangements can sometimes feel an unearned grasp at cinematic grandeur, but while the arrangements on “Count to Four” are quite rich and elegant, they never feel like they’re gilding the lily. They lend the song an air of understated, restrained melancholy, the sound of someone trying to keep a stiff upper lip through clear emotional pain. The whole song has that same feeling of restraint, and when it’s done this well it’s more compelling than any melodrama.