Going from a driving song about (sexual / romantic / etherial) longing to a subdued song about suicide, following up with an upbeat Elton John piano tune, is a bold move. It’s doesn’t nullify the song’s power, but when you yank open an old wound like this, you want something hopeful and happy to follow it up. You can’t take the whole back half of the album into emo territory.
The song doesn’t explicitly tell the story, but uses snatches of phrases to spark memories; “a sharp turn and a sunburn,” antics and yearbooks, parties and snubs, these are nearly universally relatable. Terms referring to the suicide are similarly broad yet evocative.
The references to the narrator in first person start the song and run through it, but the last two lines are still unexpected, and maybe seem out of place to some listeners. Like the crisp and strangely martial drumline, they shouldn’t belong, but they fit all too well.
When I first heard “That Year,” it started by resonating in the typical ‘this is a sad song which gains power from the singer’s personal story’ way, which the video continues. The last two lines, though, jarred me to the point I physically reacted.
When I was younger, a friend of mine drowned. His death was my first experience with the loss of someone close to me, my first funeral, the first time I saw someone completely consumed with grief, the first time I felt death as more than an abstract concept, the first time I remember having nightmares. Almost every way I processed his death, almost every way I reacted to others affected by it, every feeling I had about those swimming with him at the time, every way it was explained to me (“maybe he was taken by God to teach someone else a lesson,” “maybe he died because of sin in his or someone else’s life”), can be summed up in those two lines.
I was angry, I was a Baptist, I was a daughter, I was wrong.