Wilco - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" Meaning


The lead track from Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" appears quite cryptic to many on first listen. It reminds me of a Cubist painting, where angular distortions render an otherwise straightforward portrait into something more difficult. Even the title, while not containing any of the strange imagery found in the lyrics, sounds a little off.

There are plenty of songs about having your heart broken or hurting someone you love, but it's not often someone comes out and says they are trying to do such a thing. It takes a pop music cliche and twists it just a bit, enough to throw you slightly off-kilter.

And off-kilter is the perfect description for the track. There's no way to anticipate the lyrics (unless, of course, you've heard the song previously), and it never flows quite as smoothly as you would expect. The music lurches forward, but not too quickly, sounding like the drunk driver careening down the city streets in the opening lines:

I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I'm hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you

Our narrator has been out drinking, trying to escape the regret of leaving the woman he loves. People often ask what an "American aquarium drinker" is, but taken in context, he's just been drinking heavily.

In the second stanza, the narrator begins to plead for reconciliation:

Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning
Let's undress just like cross-eyed strangers
This is not a joke so please stop smiling
What was I thinking when I said it didn't hurt

He wants to leave behind the harsh words and fighting that led to his departure and to make up. His wife/girlfriend apparently isn't taking him seriously, attributing his regret to the ramblings of a drunkard, and it's hard to say who is right. They probably both have valid points.

But in the last line, the narrator begins to open up a little, to expose a small vulnerability. He admits that he was hurt, too, despite his show of bravado. This theme continues, "Take off your band-aid / 'cause I don't believe in touchdowns," which can be read as, "It's okay to open up to me - I'm not just trying to score."

He's drunk, regretful, desperate, and realizes that he needs that intimate connection that he threw away but not making himself vulnerable. Love is dangerous, and leaves us exposed, but by not opening up, it was as though he were intentionally trying to break her heart. It couldn't end otherwise.

The song began with stoic, almost stoned vocals from Tweedy, but by now, his voice is cracking and strained. The emotion has overtaken him (or the narrator, rather), and the music soon veers off into the dissonance and white noise that was lurking beneath the surface since the beginning.

But as the song winds down, Tweedy's voice rises back singing "I'm the man who loves you," a line from a later track on the album. It reinforces the sincerity of the narrator, that despite recent events, he is in love.

It's a tale of love and desperation, of both the difficult and necessity of intimacy.

The full lyrics of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" can be found at bemydemon.org.

"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" was written by Jeff Tweedy.

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wilcowilliams12 profile image

wilcowilliams12 6 years ago from Franklin Square, NY

I love this track. Have you ever heard it on vinyl. It's incredible how present the vocals sound and how many different things you can hear musically!

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