Songs resonant in different ways: perhaps it’s a melody that pangs with a particularly resolute truth or a verse that delivers a lightning flash of candor. Maybe it’s a real doozy and you get both, some great whirlwind of recognition cycling around word and sound. John Prine’s painfully gorgeous “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” off his 1985 album German Afternoons, generates a lyrical “whabam!” all the more powerful for the song’s easy, rolling rhythm. It’s a lesson in contrast—an emotionally taut story delivered against a serene arrangement.
Prine had a gift for distilling an experience into lines of scenic specificity. Take the chorus on “Angel from Montgomery,” for example. “If dreams were lightning and thunder were desire/ This old house would’ve burned down a long time ago,” he sings. Oof. “Speed of the Sound” is about a breakup, Prine said in 2016. I’ve always interpreted it as the ramifications of longing—of reaching for something to quiet the echo of desire. In the song, one person’s instability ricochets a needling energy that irritates and agitates and unsettles another. “You’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness,” Prine sings. “You’re out there running just to be on the run.”
As someone who has often been “out there running just to be on the run,” I’ve perceived parts of myself in the character Prine sings about—the one who left him because some feral part of her equated stability with a cage. But leaving can easily transform into a dogged chase of next, when really any decision to stay and see something through unfurls a different kind of beauty.
There’s many an arresting line in “Speed of the Sound,” but I’ve always gravitated toward the exasperated “So what in the world’s come over you?/ What in heaven’s name have you done?” I sometimes imagine the context surrounding the question. “Isn’t this enough?” Prine seems to ask. “Can’t this be enough?” The interesting thing is that running—whether to or from something—eventually wears thin. Buddhism likens the behavior to being a “hungry ghost,” someone who is never satisfied and always searching. Western thought prefers the term “hedonic treadmill,” or the constant state of seeking pleasure, thinking the next thing will sate you when nothing ever does.
I don’t want to keep running at the speed of the sound of loneliness. I want a new sound, something akin to contentment, which is only fulfilling when you recognize that what you have is enough. Because it is.