An underappreciated piece of the concert experience is the journey, in those cases where you need to go some distance to get there. It can be a time to get excited, listening to the artist’s music on the way, or a space in which to discover an amplified love for that music in the post-concert state. But when you go with others, it tends to be a really special experience.
One of my friends with whom I frequently attended concerts in college would play her music during the car rides, but on the way back, she’d often play music I wasn’t familiar with to give me a sampling and potentially get me into it (and it usually succeeded). One such introduction was to The Format—the band Nate Ruess was in before he became lead singer of fun.—and I can’t listen to their song “If Work Permits,” the closing track from their second and final album Dog Problems, without thinking of those late night drives.
In some ways, it’s a perfect night driving song; fading in with the faint sound of chirping crickets, it establishes itself initially as a ukelele-driven, gentle ballad, softening to lullaby levels at the first chorus as the background music cuts out in favor of only singular, spread-out piano notes.
But halfway through the song, it takes a sharp turn; as Ruess proclaims, “I’m doing all right,” the ballad turns into an energetic rock song. The previously cautious vocals become certain, turning aggressive and bordering on screaming at times.
It’s a particularly compelling song because of its structure; in sheer lyric stanzas, it has a not-atypical setup of three verses, two choruses, and an outro, but the stark divide down the center gives it two drastically different feelings that seem to highlight a progression of understanding. The first segment feels wistful in its thoughts about a past relationship, but the second half is about moving forward in confidence. By far, some of its most powerful lyrics come in that determined second half as it discusses a misperception of love based on witnessed violence, then declares, “I’m here to tell you / Love just ain’t some blood on the receiver / Love is speaking in code / It’s an inside joke / Love is coming home.”
Nostalgia is a part of my love for “If Work Permits,” but ultimately not the driving force; if I heard it for the first time today, I don’t doubt I’d fall in love all over again. It’s a song about inner-conflict and uncertainty that becomes a drive to move forward among self-understanding and optimism, and its two halves accompany that portrayal musically as well. If you haven’t yet heard it, I strongly urge you to change that.