For any of the long time fans of Grace VanderWaal’s music, there has been one song above all others they could point to if challenged by someone regarding Grace’s raw talent, and that’s the final track on her debut album, titled Darkness Keeps Chasing Me. That’s because in this one song, we hear and feel all of the various attributes of Grace’s otherworldly talents come together in a kind of perfect storm of brilliance; a song that is at once utterly heartbreaking, utterly agonizing, utterly wretched, utterly melancholic . . . and yet utterly hopeful.

But what’s utterly stupefying to anyone who knows of Grace’s happy-go-lucky life of youthful bliss – a young girl who loves riding her bike, or playing with her little pug, Frankie, or who can, even at age 14, still find joy playing Barbies with friends – is that she is even capable of producing a work of such gut-wrenching sorrow. What sorrow has she ever known? What depths of pain, what crippling depression, what mental anguish has she ever experienced that would give her such insight into the darkest places of the human soul?

Equally stupefying is that the song was a spur of the moment effort with co-writer Micah Premnath, because she had time left in her studio rental for the day. In her own words, “ ‘Darkness Keeps Chasing Me’ was actually just kind of like an add-on song . . . that wasn’t even my first song of that day, it was just kind of, ‘Uh, I’m here, so we might as well do another one,’ and it actually ended up really beautiful, and I kept it to be on the album.”

Really. She said that. And from her demeanor on-camera as she said it, you can tell she was as completely nonchalant about it as the words appear. She might just as well have said, “Well, see, I was like, blowing bubbles with my bubble gun, and this song, it like popped out of one, and I really, really liked it.”

Yet a collection of lyrics, even lyrics of deep insight into the human psyche, would be as passionless as a psychology textbook if not for melody to give it mood and voice to give it life, and it is in melody and voice that the true anguish of DKCM is lifted from the page and revealed in all its heart-rending sorrow. You simply cannot fathom the depths of this song by reading its words; it must be experienced through the soulful, plaintive voice of one crying in the depths of despair. Yet how a giggly 13 year old girl managed to transform herself into that plaintive voice of despair is another stupefying mystery. Indeed, a challenge for any singer who wants to test their chops and be declared a master of emoting feeling with their voice alone would be to do a cover of this song – and to try to come even halfway close to Grace’s unsurpassable performance. It is just that good.

I want to mention a comparison here, but I know people have grown tired of Grace being compared to anyone. But really, that’s what we do in life: we compare. Prices, features, styling, taste – there’s thousands of things we do that involve comparing this to that. But I’m not here going to compare Grace to some other singer, but to compare what I experienced from listening to DKCM with every other song I can remember having listened to. Like most people, I’ve listened to thousands of songs in my life, and many moved me in various ways: my spirit soared at times, I was brought low at times, or found myself unknowingly tapping my foot in time with the beat. But only one other piece of music in my own personal experience moves me the way Darkness Keeps Chasing Me does. That piece would be Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2. Or you might know it by it’s more popular name, the Moonlight Sonata. Just the first movement, mind you. My favorite live performance of it is here: https://youtu.be/O6txOvK-mAk.

One other thing before I begin the analysis, and that’s a mention of Grace’s co-author, Micah Premnath. I don’t think Micah gets the credit he deserves. It’s easy to believe that Grace could have written this song solo, but that just isn’t what happened. Still, Micah himself was rather humble when asked about his part. He didn’t puff himself up, or try to take credit that wasn’t his. Instead, he informed us that he was there for needed guidance to keep Grace’s focus set, and to ‘smooth off the rough edges’ in order to create a superior product. Mostly, though, he tried to stay out of her way when he could, in order to let her extraordinary talent shine through. And that may be the hardest thing to do, after all – to know when to hold back and let raw talent take the lead. Truthfully, we’ll never know of Micah’s full contribution to this song, but he has my eternal gratitude for having been there to draw out Grace’s best effort.

Before we begin, take a listen to the song as performed on MTV (recorded just a few days before this article was posted)

Now, on to the lyrics. A full listing is provided in the first sub-comment attached below, for your reference. First thing, as is her norm, Grace’s lyrics resort to metaphor to get the point across. For instance, the first two lines:

Opening my eyes
Seems like ​it ​gets ​harder ​sometimes

Anyone who has ever dreaded the arrival of a new day and an exit from a blissful dreamworld will understand this. Or spent a night in an unsuccessful attempt at sleep, only to finally find it ten minutes before the alarm is set to go off. In either case, it feels like your eyes are glued shut. But this isn’t about waking from sleep with droopy eyelids. The experience instead is used to convey an idea about dreariness of thought; the inability to think clearly, or with purpose.

Look ​at ​the ​skylight
Would ​you ​be ​mad ​at ​me ​if ​I ​tried ​running ​away ​to ​it ​in ​the ​night

I’ve wondered if the inspiration of these lines was her treehouse, which has a skylight, and her desire to ‘run away’ from home – out into the yard, into the treehouse, lock the door, lock out the world and its problems. But that begs the question, did she write this before or after the treehouse was built? Whether it’s the source or not, it’s the idea of escaping the clutches of the darkness, running towards a perceived oasis of light. That she has to ask ‘permission’, of sorts, isn’t about her youth – she’s not asking a parent for permission, she’s speaking of someone who is concerned for her, whether parent, friend, sibling, or other loved one. It’s someone who knows what she’s going through, but doesn’t know how to help.

I ​tried ​to ​fight, but ​I’m ​not ​strong ​enough
I ​just ​want ​you ​here ​but ​I ​also ​wanna ​be ​alone
I ​don’t ​know what I ​want ​anymore

These lines reflect a struggle with depression or other anxiety very well. How a sufferer wants to get past it, but feels as if they’re at the end of their energy. Typical, too, is the desire to want a loved one with them in their struggle, yet at the same time want to endure their suffering in solitude – but be unable explain why. And the final line, what more can be said? Having depression is like having a big question mark stamped on your life, because any future goodness seems unknowably distant and unreachable, as if hidden behind a veil of darkness.

We get to the first pre-chorus now, its meaning drenched in agony by the mournful wail of the singer’s voice:

Ev’ry ​now ​and ​then ​the ​darkness ​tries ​to ​chase ​me
And ​my ​legs ​are ​getting ​tired ​of ​running
Ooh
Please ​don’t, please ​don’t let ​it ​get ​to ​me
Ohh, I ​don’t ​wanna ​give ​up ​that ​easily

This is open to many interpretations, but a good one is of those nightmares in which you’re being chased by a dark, unknown evil, and though you’re running from it with all your might, you make no headway, feeling as if you’re running through molasses. How similar that is to the darkest episodes of waking depression, when you feel as if the enemy (real or imaginary, you can’t tell) is about to pounce on you, but you can’t escape. And yet you don’t want to give in. You’re so tired of fleeing from the ever approaching darkness, but you continue running because the alternative is unthinkable.

But ​the ​darkness ​keeps ​chasing
Me
Me

This is the point of deepest despair, yet also the moment of greatest hopefulness. She’s acknowledging something that may be hard to hear, and that’s that there won’t be a permanent escape (at least in this life) from these feelings of despair – the darkness ‘keeps’ chasing; it doesn’t ever stop. Life won’t always be sunshine and roses, because some days are going to be cloudy and rainy. This seemingly gloomy outlook on life is actually more realistic than pure happiness songs, because five minutes after you listen to them you can fall right back into the pit of despair. DKCM doesn’t promise you anything approaching pure happiness, only that there’s always hope. And lyrically, hope comes after ‘chasing’ is sung, with the repeat of the single word ‘me’ chased across a descending / ascending scale of notes chosen to ring with a feeling of positive outlook. Also note that this ‘things will get better, but life will always be a struggle’ attitude is a recurring theme in much of Grace’s work, the most recent being Clearly. Genius or not, Grace’s outlook on life as written into her songs is just dripping with a wisdom that takes most people a lifetime to acquire.

That’s it for the first verse and chorus. Tune in tomorrow as we complete our look into DKCM, beginning with verse two.

This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XydnaaaaSnE&lc=Ugw2hRFcSuHkxhCOs9V4AaABAg