Quite by accident, this series has had much more to say about the expressiveness of music than the brilliance of lyrics. I’m OK with that. I majored in music, not poetry.
And this one comes from a strange place. Singer/guitarist Brian Aubert says (see the Songfacts link he and bassist Nikki Monninger were typing dirty words into a thesaurus with a computer voice, yadda yadda yadda, here’s a song about nervous breakdown.
At Genius, the contributors think the first verse depict a man trying to sleep but thinking of a failed relationship. The alarm clock and white noise machine aren’t helping.
SongMeanings has one interesting suggestion — it’s about an anxiety attack about the music industry, not a failed relationship.
Songfacts has one funny addition — Mitt Romney started using this song in his campaign, much to the band’s amusement. Rolling Stone confirms.
All interesting, and I still have no idea why someone having a nervous breakdown over a relationship of any kind would need a panic switch. Whom would the panic switch summon? Who would present a clear and present danger? Are they worried that a record company executive might come through the window, and the panic switch triggers an alarm in their agent’s office?
My best guess is that whatever situation is plaguing the protagonist here has created a fit of paranoia. Which makes it especially hilarious that Romney used it in his campaign.
The lyrics are fine. Deconstructing them too much surely misses the point. But what pushes this song into brilliance are the instrumental flourishes that convey a sense of uneasiness and anxiety more efficiently than any words could.
Monninger’s bass line is the key. Through the verses, she repeats a one-measure riff with a rhythm that is both steady and unsettled. Three notes are off the beat — if you use “1-e-and-a” to count 16th notes, they’re on the “a” of 1, the “and” of 2, the “e” of 3. Then she climbs back up to the top of the octave on “4-and-1.” The effect is like someone thrashing around between coherent and incoherent thought. The “4-and-1” is unrelenting, like a throbbing headache. (But it sounds so good!)
In the chorus, the bass line settles down to steady eighth notes, as if the protagonist has managed to catch his breath and assess the situation. But it’s not resolved. Aubert restates the opening guitar riff as Monninger goes back to the churning pattern of the verses.
The bridge adds a twist. The bass line, again, is steady eighth notes. But this is where Aubert repeats the phrase “I’m waiting and fading and floating away.” It’s as if the protagonist has managed to take stock and simplify the situation, and … it’s not good.
After restating the chorus, with a bit of backup vocals in the mix, Monninger and Aubert play the main riff together while drummer Christopher Guanlao — who plays a complex but subdued part through most of the song — thrashes wildly.
The song is a perfect showcase for a band that sometimes sounds like Smashing Pumpkins — high-pitched male voice, similar guitar sound — but has a unique style that lends itself to subtlety. Keyboardist Joe Lester plays synths that seem to have more buttons and knobs than keys, usually taking a complementary role while Aubert, Monninger and Guanlao serve as a quirky power trio, sometimes inverting the bass and guitar roles like Entwistle and Townshend in The Who. Guanlao has one of the strangest drum kits in music — nearly everything is to his left except a floor tom and a crash cymbal raised so high that he can barely reach it.
The video is a fairly typical sequence of quick cuts, but it also gives us a few glimpses of the band in action. Check out Guanlao’s left-hand alternation between the hi-hat and the ride.
So we still have a few questions. Who’s having the breakdown — the protagonist or the other party? Why is it “you” through most of the chorus but “she” in the last line? Have the sales of panic switches gone up as a result of this song, or have they dropped because references to the song now occupy most of the first page of search results for “panic switch”?
But Panic Switch is a compelling, relatable listen. And its clever instrumentation puts it several rungs ahead of most alt-rock angstfests.