“How Can I Tell You” and the Definition of Love

The theme of love is no stranger to music and songwriting and it’s easy to see why. Love is amongst one of the strongest human emotions as it encapsulates all of the positive human emotions into one that is deep and complex. This breadth of the emotion has lead to songwriters to explore love in many different ways. You can easily write a song about the pre-decided fate of a relationship such as Kiss’s “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”, or a simple love song to declare just how much you love someone such as the masterpiece “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” by Donny Hathaway. However, none of these songs come remotely close to how fantastic of a love song “How Can I Tell You” by Cat Stevens is. Well other songs focus on simply one aspect of love, “How Can I Tell You” aims at explaining the intricacies of love. Although this is quite a complex topic, Stevens manages to condense all of the emotions that come along with that of love into a simple acoustic melody that rings out like love ringing out in an echoing heart.

Love is sometimes a hard emotion to fathom. This sums up the meaning of the lyrics of “How Can I Tell You”. Although that statement is quite basic there is much more to what Stevens is attempting to convey through this song.

I’m always thinking of you, but my words just blow away

Stevens not only describes the deep love that he experiences for someone, but also struggles to find a way to convey it. This struggle between knowing exactly how you feel, how much you love someone and not being able to turn that into words is what makes this song a unique and brilliant love song. This captures the true feeling of love. It’s such an immense feeling. It’s dense with separate emotions that at times can be overwhelming and cause us to lose our words to depict it. The way that Stevens choses to convey this feeling that he cannot express in words is to express it through music. Not only can he only describe this feeling through music but he does so indirectly, by speaking of the feelings that arise as he is missing his lover, not while he is in their presence.

Wherever I am girl, I’m always walking with you
I’m always walking with you, but I look and you’re not there

In a sense, “How Can I Tell You” is a meditative reflection for Stevens while he is away from the person he loves. Being away allows Stevens to better understand what love truly is and what it means to him. As he further investigates how he feels whilst his lover is away, he comes to the conclusion that “it always adds up to one thing” and love is the only explanation for why he feels the way he does. This discovery of the definition of love is what truly sets “How Can I Tell You” apart from other love songs.

Musically, “How Can I Tell You” has a beautiful simplicity to it. The song begins with chords ringing out on a guitar. This intro creates an intimate setting as it invokes the feeling that it is being preformed for the first time every time and the music is organically manifesting through Stevens. The first chord played of the melody is a rather sad E minor giving the song a very humble beginning. The beginning chord is lifted upwards into happier set of A D and G. An acoustic bass simply plays the roots to accentuate the change from solemn chords to more uplifting ones. This chord progression gives the entire song a melancholy feeling. The chord progression is combined with the lyrics in a way that the sadder chords correspond with the lyrics that speak to missing a lover. This makes the song feel more romantic, like a ballad sung by a medieval poet in order to woe their lover and not a modern pop song. There are also small intricacies in the song that are worth noting. During the bridge, Steven’s whooos are accompanied by a flute that manifests itself with trills that give the track more depth. By the end, the song is given a sense of finality as more instruments such as a harpsichord and a female voice are added bringing the song to a conclusive end. The simplicity the “How Can I Tell You” has is quite striking as it is uniquely raw in a sea of songs that are overpopulated with instruments and multiple complex verses and parts. Without such well thought out music behind the lyrics, the song would lose much of its meaning to complex instrumentals.

“How Can I Tell You” is a no nonsense love song. It doesn’t try too hard to seduce the listener but rather, Cat Stevens is able to express the deepness of his love just by saying how complicated it is. He tells the listener that he can’t show in words how much he loves them but just to trust him that it is immense. This is coupled with a simple instrumental part made up of mostly guitar to end up with a song that defines love as a whole rather than just a single part or the act of loving. It is truly incredible that “How Can I Tell You” can convey so much about love while being about how it is impossible to convey with words.

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