Under the mister
We had survived to
Turn on the History Channel
And ask our esteemed panel
Why are we alive?
And here's how they replied
You're what happens when two substances collide
And by all accounts you really should have died

Stretched out on a tarmac
Six miles south of North Platte
He can't stand to look back
Sixteen tons of hazmat
It's what goes undelivered

It's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left
It's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left
Of the what, of the head to the left
So exercise yourselves to your bereft
'Cause it's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left of the, of the, to the

Splayed out on a bath mat
Six miles north of South Platte
He just wants his life back
What's in that paper nap sack
It's what goes undelivered

It's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left
A nervous tic motion of the head
Head to the left
It's a nervous tic motion of the, of the, to the

It's a nervous tic motion of the head to the, of the, of the head of the head to the

Over imbibedUnder the mister
Barely alive we cover the blisters in flannel
Though the words we speak are banal
Now one of them's a lie
Now one of them's a lie
You're what happens when two substances collide
And by all accounts you really should have died

Lyrics submitted by bootu

A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left song meanings
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  • +5
    General CommentWow, I'm really not liking the theme that's starting to develop in this thread. The lyrics about being "what happens when two substances collide, and by all accounts you really should've died" doesn't sound to me at all to be about substance abuse. It talks earlier of asking a panel of experts on the history channel. You literally ARE what happens when two substances collide, egg and sperm. By all accounts you should've died because a million things can happen before a baby is born. The mother or the father could be infertile. The sperm or the egg could be defective. The sperm that created you could've not made it to the egg before another one did, resulting in death. It is talking, I think, about how there's a million amazing occurrences that occur that bring you into being. It's almost an expression of fate because the sheer number of possibilities that could've happened in that moment, and somehow you come out of it. The rest of the song could easily be about substance abuse, but the fact remains that this seems to be what this section is about, and it's a strong message. The rest of the song seems to be talking about those who abuse substances, or at very least don't see a point in life. Maybe as was said before, after surviving addiction they see this excerpt on the history channel and it's a lifechanging moment.

    I think this song has a strong message about fate tucked deep down into the lyrics, and it basically is jumping out at you to say that the odds were against you even coming into existence. So maybe instead of thinking about what it's all good for or what you are doing here, you should actually do something with your time.

    But I've been wrong before =P
    BuckWilderon May 24, 2006   Link
  • +4
    General CommentI just can't get over the well executed transition between a well mannered, mellow track - to an all out, catchy pop tune. "And by all accounts you really should have died" serves as the queue, and is followed by a suspenseful silence, turning into beautiful listening and finally, the tune that remains in your head for days after.

    Art Shostakon March 14, 2005   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI spent some time analyzing this song. While my assumption of its meaning is depressing , I think it may be accurate. It is about how fragile life is and how quickly it can end. It seem to be taken from the point of view of someone at a cemetery as sprinklers go on.
    Let me break down how I see it.
    Numbed by too many anti-depressants he is at a lovers funeral getting soaked by the sprinkler or rain but not caring. He just wants to know why he is alive when his love isn't. He thinks of a show he saw on tv about the birth of man. Unlike religion the scientist (experts) explain the creation of life as a pure luck mix of elements. They continue on to the millions of sperm who die off trying to find an egg. There are so many ways not to make it.
    The next verse is a car accident. The lover's body is laying on the road. The scene is so devastating he can't look at it. The Hazardous Materials are the blood and broken glass, etc. at the scene. His love will never go home again or be with him again. The lover is what goes undelivered.
    He was in the passengers seat. He may have been to drunk or high to drive. That may be why he lived. Now he has to let go of all his sorrow and guilt. He won't let himself just grieve. He is desperate to move on and no longer be haunted by that last moment. He gets himself numb with way to many anti-depressants.
    Imbibed refers absorbing too much. I'm guessing in his case it's a combo of alcohol, pills, and the water from the mister soaking his skin. The blisters could be physical or could be referring to sharp criticism of himself or both. To an extreme him might have injured himself in an attempt to feel. People are saying things to him like," She was a good person. We'll miss her." And the one he can''t deal with now," It's not your fault." He think it is his fault, he is the one who should have died. He thinks that what the people are secretly saying.
    Odessa1on July 06, 2006   Link
  • +3
    General CommentThis one always makes me think about... me.

    I had a "nervous tic motion of the head" when I was a kid. It used to be pronounced. Not "to the left", but a forceful forward snap. It won me merciless and cruel attention. It never really went away. I just internalized it. Now I chomp and grind my teeth all day; now they’re cracked and chipped like the rest of me. I also have an assortment of other nervous twitches that don't fail to be noticed.

    The "16 tons of hazmat” are the messes that I've left behind, and the way they've stained my present; limited my future by consequence. A life full of poison that any sane person would rightly want to avoid, pack in a truck while covered in a sealed suit, and bury in the desert. "What goes undelivered" is the part of me that was damaged as a result. Time I will never recover. Potential never developed. Options and paths, irreparably damaged by decisions, made for me by trauma and sickness. And yes, I would love to have my life back. Love to undo what's done. But was it ever really mine to begin with, or did the forces of nature conspire to make me a human disaster?

    "Overprescribed...Under the Mister". This is fairly literal. Patient of the psychological machine, 30 years and running. The “mister” could be any assortment of doctors or institutions. Parents. Teachers. Bosses. Lovers lost. Anyone assuring me I MUST do this or that. All of which leaves me roughly where I began. And so here I lay, “stretched out on the tarmac”. I missed the plane. I wanted to fly away. Instead I'm just a few miles north of where I started, face down on the asphalt.

    This leads eventually to being "splayed out on the bath mat". Possibly having "over-imbibed" something you might see a man in my condition, on the street, clutching in the poor disguise of a "paper knapsack".

    Now I'm "barely alive" and I "cover the blisters" - from a seared life; scorched earth; fiery encounters - with a layer of whatever it is I can find to cover myself. "Flannel" is as good as anything else I suppose. It doesn't matter. Flannel's practical. It doesn't impress, but it doesn't have to. It just needs to be soft, and somewhat durable. The blisters hurt, you see.

    I try to talk about my pain. My depression. My dysphoria. But when I say things to people, I fail to make an impression. My ramblings sound "banal" - the whines and complaints of a guy who just needs to 'get his sh!t together and quit b!tching'. But not "one of them's [the words] a lie". It's the truth. An awful truth. A truth they're glad they don't know, or can't see. They know nothing of the hidden blisters. Nothing I can spit out of this mouth and into their ears will ever make any difference.

    It'll only just land me back into the hands of a "mister" - another "prescription" - or perhaps upon my “bath mat”, where someone will find me, a repellent mess, blocking the path between them and the toilet, the latter a higher priority, only slightly less disgusting than whatever they are about to excrete.

    Why this? Why ANYthing. It just happens. "Substances collide". Galaxies — solar systems — planets — molecules — bacteria — spirochetes - fungi - plants - animals - complex arrangements of tissue. Egg and sperm — the bulk of the latter wasted. Ejaculated into the dark, swimming around lost, finding nothing, until death. One in a million, if lucky, leads to something new, but maybe meaningless.

    You can "exercise yourself 'till you're bereft" - but it won't really matter.


    Xaphiuson July 03, 2011   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think it's "...words we speak are banal, not one of them's a lie". This entire album is flat out amazing. Seems like a lot of spiritual thought behind these songs. After a couple months of listening, I'm still not sure what to make of this song. I've got several ideas though...
    seagoon March 15, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think everyone has figured it out together and I find that my original hunch was partly correct. The drug twist was a direction I hadn't entertained that was equally valid. The meaning of this song is, to me, that we are unlikely existant beings with consciousnesses that can't be appeased by the meaningless activities that the whole of existance seems to have brought us(history channel watching). Overprescribed is the monotony of it all; I agree with whoever said that.
    The covering of blisters with flannel is an interpretation of the covering of pain with our bland soley accepted emotion of conformity or nonemotion. The reason not one of the words we speak can be a lie is because there is no truth outside of human experience, so objectively everything is true since objective truth is undefined. When I think about the depressing facts of life I almost have a nervous tic motion of the head, not necessarily to the left though.
    Ramalamaon May 26, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General CommentAnother take on this complex set of lyrics - which is intensely personal to Andrew so I'll skim the surface of it...

    Andrew Bird's brother is autistic and I think that there are definitely allusions to a bad experience which he had in this song... coupled with other complex issues about life, mortality and the way we cope with situations. But it is a song not without hope - as is common with Andrew's lyrics.

    A nervous tic motion of the head to the left is a side effect from use of the medication Thorazin which is used to treat autism. Andrew also wrote about autism in another song called 'Tea and Thorazin' early in his career.

    I find both songs intensely moving.
    EternalLullon January 17, 2009   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationI think this is about stress, inability in dealing with people, and self-criticism. It's like, when you can't quite bear to look directly at someone's face but you have to make eye contact. The speaker has a stressful job with a big project he needs to get done, but is falling behind. He's talking to his boss, and is so jittery with guilt over the unfinished project that he doesn't want to make eye contact, but is trying to force himself to, thus shifting his gaze between the safe place past his boss's head and the face of the boss.

    When his boss berates him over procrastinating on the project, he walks away covering the blisters (from the words) in flannel to hide that he's secretly freaked that he'll lose his job. When he goes to try and find answers via the History Channel, they give him an incomprehensible answer except the encouraging bit: "YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED." Real helpful, guys.

    Now he wants to be on a jet tarmac, ready to fly away from problems, and he "can't stand to look back" at his failure. He feels like he's lost his life and "wants it back," but can't quite transition back into normality and his job, even though the boss probably didn't mean anything that serious. But he knows that the History Channel dudes don't always get things right (in fact, they're wrong quite often, depending on your religious opinion) and he's second-guessing their so-called advice...

    Though the words we speak are banal
    Now one of them's a lie
    Now one of them's a lie
    You're what happens when two substances collide
    And by all accounts you really should have died
    myexplodingcaton June 07, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI've been obsessed with these lyrics for a little bit now and have been reading others opinions on here. It makes sense that "youre what happens when two substances collide" refers to a sperm and an egg... it follows the theme of the album sort of, but it also makes sense that the song is about a drug addiction. A former mob affiliate named Henry Hill currently lives in North Platte as a cook, and I say former mob affiliate because he testified against another mobster and put him in jail. "Though th words we speak are banal/not one of thems a lie" might be his testimony. He also had a drug problem.

    This doesnt really work with the rest of the song though, im not even sure if "North Platte" even means anything because the third verse uses "six miles north of South Platte" and it doesnt even seem like south platte even exists.

    I can see the whole sperm and egg theory and the song revolving around several people. One who watches the history channel with a panel of experts explaining the hard journey of the sperm to the egg, and explaining to whoever is watching that they should have died before they two substances collided.

    The second and third verses could about two different people. One is most likely a truck driver which explains the "streched out on the tarmac" as an 18 wheeler carrying 16 tons of hazmat. OR, he could be running from something or someone, the 16 tons of hazmat could be a metaphor for a lot of problems of some sort. This would tie with the next verse as he is trying to forget his problems with drugs, and he is in the bathroom with a sack full of coke or pills or something, wishing he had his life back before all the problems led him to run away. He could also be the one who was watching the history channel and reflecting on his life. Maybe he thought it was a waste after all, on all accounts he really should have died before he came to be.

    Of course theres the line "over imbibed under the mister/barely alive we cover the blisters in flannel" suggests maybe the subject was burnt. The word imbibed could mean to soak up a liquid or to consume a liquid. Perhaps soaking up the water from the mister. I don't know what the flannel is for. "The words we speak are banal/not one of thems a lie" could be from the panel of experts again. They do speak without "freshness or originalty", but most of the time they speak the truth, i mean, they are the experts for a reason.

    Another interesting point is that in the opening and closing verse, andrew bird uses the word "we" instead of "I", but in the second and third verses he tells a story of a specific person. I better stop thinking too much about it, or i'm not going to enjoy the song anymore
    mdkruse2on January 22, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI didnt read all of the comments so what i say may have been covered somewhat, previously. I think by "nervous tic motion of the head to the left" bird means that we felt or sensed something supernatural or beyond our grasp that just influenced the moment so we turn our heads like we might catch what we thought was something in the corner of our eye(no im not crazy haha). This feeling we get that there might be "something else" makes us look for a purpose in our lives or realize that we are akin to pennies on the train track (ben kweller) and that something is controlling our fate and there's nothing we can do about it. I'm not sure about the stanzas with the characters or how they relate...ill keep trying to figure it out
    tru_shardon April 19, 2007   Link

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