Interpretations:Push Back The Hands

From This Might Be A Wiki

The slow motion process of crashing[edit]

On hearing this song for the first few times, it sounds like it's about a person who's been involved in a car crash that severs their right arm, and the way time seems to stop during a terrible event like that. The line 'screeching tyres but never a collision' really reminds me of the feeling you get when you know you're about to crash, but there's nothing you can do about it. That sensation seems to last an eternity before the impact. The overarching disbelief that the person in the song has over what just happened is really beautifully written, I think. The Johns have nailed the desperate way a person tries to drown out the chaos around them, because to recognise it makes the whole thing suddenly reality, not the nightmare it feels like it is whilst you're still in a daze. I just love how even the steady rhythm of the song echoes a clock, the 'hands of time', or perhaps a heartbeat. The fact it's so upbeat behind the rather hopeless lyrics is wonderfully typical of the Johns, and really lends itself to the surreal feeling you get when in shock. The use of a fade out is really clever too - I like to think that it's our armless victim fading out of consciousness. Mae (talk) 19:50, 11 January 2018 (EST)

I agree that the song is about a car crash, but I think that the subject's spouse and child were killed in the collision. I think the second use of the term "right arm" (in "You would give up your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm") is akin to something like "right hand man", as a description of the spouse. In my reading, the phrase "Dawn breaks like a fallen vase" is a morbid play on words describing the injury of either the spouse or child, Dawn being a woman's name. The following line ("unwelcome vision of rosy fingers") suggests either the actual sight of a child's bloody hand or the idea of blaming oneself for the collision, i.e. "blood on your hands". Finally, in my reading of the song, the extended "like a newborn baaaaaabe" is particularly heartbreaking because it suggests the subject internalizing what just happened to the child. It is definitely an incredibly sad, but beautiful song. -Joshua Glasgow, 24 January 2018 18:30 PST
I think those lines more specifically point to the time of day this incident (whatever it is), happened. The rosy-fingered dawn is a well-known epithet from Homer describing Eos, the goddess of the dawn. The epithet is broken up between lines to further break up the lyrical structure, in the same way a vase would break, or a windshield would break, carrying the metaphor further. I could be very wrong but I feel like Linnell is writing more generally and metaphorically than about a specific death. -sinister.dexter, 20180206, 15:23 EST.

I got ta say....[edit]

It spunds to me like theres probably more then one of thses (i.e. stone cold coup D'Etat [sic]). So where does this leave us? Well hmmmm lets think about it. There's five reasons it can't be the second one, or even the third. We're probably somewhere towards 8 or 10 now. the Five reasons are:

1. John Linnelli (dropped the second I from his last name for unknown reasons)
2. Simple math
3. It's a budgeting thing obviously
R. Basic pictograms (ex., ladies/little boys room doors, picnic tables, stop signes, etc)
5. Nobody knows what that is all about but i tcame out any way.

Too much traffic? Well we'll see. One way or another there has got to be at least a few more of these things BEFORE this one. They told us that as much on the Else but nobody knew it until we had it verified in 2010.--WhatTheHeckLinnell (talk) 12:26, 18 January 2018 (EST)--WhatTheHeckLinnell (talk) 12:25, 18 January 2018 (EST)

I Made A Post[edit]

I made a post on Tumblr interpreting this song.

(This post no longer exists) you don’t have to[edit]

For your convenience, I translated everything in the music video from Italian and will also point out Easter eggs. Livello: “Level.” Viaggio Nel Tempo: Italian for “time travel.” Represents the different timelines the hero faces in the video. Livello 1: A futuristic society, also probably the hero’s homeland. Livello 2: Prehistoric time period. Livello 3: Wasteland, unknown time period, but hinted, as Hammurabi from The Mesopotamian, crudely pixelated, makes a brief appearance. Livello 4: Wild West; hero gets shot. Livello 5: 1912, hinted, as hero is on the Titanic. Livello 6: 1846, as hero is transported to Mexican army execution. Livello 7: Unknown, but, in comparison to the fame of the other events, might be the Pompeii volcano. If so, the year is 79. Livello 8: Hidden TMBG reference, hero appears in test car with soon-to-be disembodied crash dummy, as seen on the album cover of Mink Car. Livello 9: Utterly unknown. Livello 10-A: Major reference to Don’t Let’s Start. Livello 10-B: Still unknown.

——Edit: Sorry, return doesn’t work.

-When Cheese Met Chalk

10-B is the clock tower in Back To The Future. --Nehushtan (talk) 14:30, 28 October 2019 (EDT)

The fallbacks of being in a rock band[edit]

So I really only thought of this now because the video always clashed with my interpretations, but I think I get it now. This song is about the experience of a rock band, probably from a different point of view then theirs.

You would give up your right arm to go back/To when you had a right arm

This part is referring to when Linnell broke his wrist around the time Flansburgh’s apartment was robbed, which is why they made dial-a-song, and launched them into success.

You need some muscles to move it backwards/ push back the hands of time

This line rather simple, just saying that they (the narrator) regret being in a rock band.

Broken glass is glittering like diamonds/ Can’t hear yourself thinking over the sirens

This line probably is just about the experience of a rock band being in a scandal, such as the Lennon “we’re more popular than Jesus” scandal.

Push back the hands of time/ push back the hands of time

Well, obviously this is just a reference to the “you’ll need some muscles...” line.

You need to sing to drown out the car horn/ Squeeze your eyes shut and scream like a newborn/ like a newborn babe

This part is about trying to sing over a crowd screaming, but also possibly singing to avoid the scandals.

Dawn breaks, like a fallen vase/ push back the hands of time

This part is just about paranoia, thinking you’ll that someone everyone is out to get you as soon as you wake up, like your parents would be when you break a vase.

Unwelcome vision, of rosy fingers/ push back the hands of time

This line is actually a road block for me. If anyone has an interpretation of this line, I would appreciate it.

Screeching tires, without a collision/ endless day without a sunset provision/ endless day

This line is probably traveling long distances to perform concerts and getting jet lag, or else, just playing a long concert in general. The rest of the song is just repeating lyrics.

The crucial line is the title[edit]

The crucial line is the title. The song can be seen as one of TMBG's several "time travel tragedy" narratives. The protagonist dies in a car crash at dawn after a night of no sleep (evocative of the 'Nyquil Driver' and one of the Spoiler Alert protagonists). The driver protagonist, described as 'you', loses an arm in the process. Now consider, if you will, the fantastical scenario where the song's second-person protagonist has, through some kind of mechanism or ordeal, been empowered to literally, at the moment of death, 'push back the hands of time' using some 'muscle to move it backwards'... The outcome being thus:

The ill-fated protagonist goes back to the past, back to the moment where "dawn breaks", yknow, back to the temporal domain of "rosy-fingered" Eos... returns to that moment, only to find that nothing can be changed--"it wouldn't help you if you'd had any sleep", expressing the futility or actual impossibility of alternatives or what-if scenarios, "it wouldn't save you from the mission creep", from the misadventure leading to your death--nothing could!

And precisely because nothing can be changed, the protagonist is now trapped in a loop... constantly trying to return to the original point and change things, and being unable to--this is the "endless day without a sunset provision," "endless day" because night will never fall for this doomed one who shall die before noon. There is now nothing but the ceaseless repetitive nightmare loop of "screeching tires, but never a collision", the miserable clamor of the car horn, the desire to squeeze the eyes shut and avert the reality of imminent death, to retreat instead to the moment of birth and "scream like a newborn" instead of being forced to face this cruel, abrupt, senseless ending.

As if to cement everything, the titular lyric repeats endlessly at the end of the song, as the protagonist keeps endlessly, repeatedly "Pushing Back The Hands Of Time" before the final moment.

Many of They Might Be Giants songs feature fatalism as a theme, so it is no surprise that our unfortunate protagonist, another of endless victims sacrificed to America's brutish roadways, cannot do anything to change things once it's already too late...

But I wonder if determinism is really true? Have the fates or the physical laws preordained our every outcome? Well, who knows...

More thematic interpretation about regrets[edit]

I’ve been listening to They Might Be Giants for decades now, since I was a pretty small child, and over the years, I’ve taken to recognizing that a lot of their songs seem to be coming from a more symbolic place. A literal interpretation many times makes less sense than the use of esoteric imagery and emotionally charged language to communicate something a bit less specific than might be suggested in a literal reading.

Every line in this song, from the recursive logic of the first line “You would give up your right arm to go back to when you had a right arm.” to the inescapable feeling captured by “endless day without a sunset provision” seems to be hinting at the same general theme of regret. Thinking back on the choices you wish you hadn’t made, and wanting to go back simply to not make those choices. The part about needing some muscles to move it backwards while the implication of missing one of your arms in the line before seems to be an acknowledgment of the fact that no matter how much you regret something, you can’t actually go back and not do it.

The chorus about pushing back the hands of time isn’t meant to be a literal call for time travel, if my interpretation is correct. It’s more of a plea to the universe. Wishing that you could go back. I don’t know if I’m right about this, but this was the impression I got from it.

Counterfactual thinking[edit]

My interpretation of this song is similar to others, about a car crash, although instead of the more literal traveling time to try to make things change, instead I think it's an example of counterfactual thinking. Indicated in the line It wouldn't help if you had any sleep, it wouldn't save you from the mission, creep. The actual setting would be the protagonist in the hospital after the accident, with either a severed or amputated right arm. The protagonist cannot stop thinking of the accident, and the events leading up to it, memories of the broken glass, being so shaken as to not being able to think over the sound of siren's coming from an ambulance/police cars etc.

The verse Unwelcome vision of rosey fingers I think would be the person looking down at their bloody hands shortly after the crash. Dawn breaks like a fallen vase would be the protagonist getting up at dawn without any sleep, based the exhaustion of pulling an all nighter. Now, the chorus itself Push Back The Hands of Time likely the protagonist's brain telling it to look back to see what could've been done differently (more counterfactual thinking). Finally, the slow fade out is the protagonist coming back to their senses and finally accepting the accident.

NotTheOnlyDust (talk) 15:45, 12 January 2023 (EST)