There’s a piano. It’s broken or muffled. There seems to be the sound of people moving about in the background. It turns out those noises are the drums that soon join in.
This is how Noah Gundersen’s “Better Days” starts.
Quietly, effected, but deceptive, for when the singing starts it’s crystal clear, soulful, and emotional. He starts to reminisce about a house where he lived and it sounds nice. Warm chords accompany warm memories until he confides in us that this house is where he:
Lost my best friend a couple years before
That line initially seems to be the odd one out, a jarring, darker memory among the nostalgic ones. But after a lovely piano riff, the next verse takes us somewhere more ambiguous.
I was down on the beach
Just out of reach
Of a freaked out kid learning to swim
He was doing his best
He was holding his breath as the water rose past his chest
Is the kid drowning? He’s out of reach so perhaps he can’t be saved. Is it a dream of someone who’s being overcome by an ocean of anxiety? Is Gundersen talking about himself?
Strings are sweeping in the background, we’re working our way up to something and after a brief pause, the chorus opens up and we find our narrator in a very different place to the affectionate memories of the first verse.
Sometimes I feel like I’m caught in a riptide
That’s pulling me out to a watery grave
Sometimes I feel like I’ve seen enough
It’s all too much
I feel like giving up on better days
Because he was singing about the possibly real out-of-his-depth kid before the chorus, it’s a tangent to be now mentioning giving up. Where did this come from? It’s not directly related to the kid; he’s questioning whether he can cope, whether he can go on, whether better days will come. But if he is the kid from the verse, perhaps he’s tired of treading water, as the water rises.
The next verse takes us to a different place to find:
This guy that I knew
We met when I was 22
In San Diego when I was on tour
It’s suddenly very specific to this one guy. And the reason for this becomes clear when we find out that
He took his own life
Left a beautiful wife and baby boy
And Gundersen then uses the chorus as a message to the guy he lost, a message he would share with him if only he could. The chorus in this context suddenly becomes powerfully emotional and moving as the accompanying music epically rises in intensity, as does Gunderson’s singing, reaching out to hope as he sings:
Sometimes the going gets pretty rough
But I’m hanging tough
I’m not giving up on better days
They say grief comes in waves. Maybe that’s why lots of songs about struggles involve the sea. And water, oceans and riptides are all present in this song.
The pain is palpable in “Better Days”.
The pain of losing someone, the pain of being on the side of the living and trying to work out why someone you knew didn’t want to be here as well, the pain of wondering if you yourself can go on.
But also present is the hope that you’ll get past that pain, that somehow you’ll learn to heal. The piano motif repeats at the end of the song and doesn’t seem quite as broken as at the start.
Perhaps the healing has started.
I hope so.