One thing I love about Ben Folds that I've mentioned before is the duality of his tone. He's got a smarmy, ironic, Gen X snarkiness in some of his songs, but then others are completely straight-faced, sincere, emotionally naked confessionals. "Cologne" falls in the latter category.
It stands to reason that a man who has been through three divorces would be pretty good at writing a breakup song, doesn't it? "Cologne" sets the melancholy tone early with the tinkling piano notes (with the song's little hook coming in at 1:20). In classic Folds style, his voice is at the forefront, accompanied only by piano (as it is through most of the song) so we can really catch the lyrics. So, let's check those out:
Here in Cologne
I know I said it wrong
I walked you to the train
And back across alone
To my hotel room
And ordered me some food
And now I'm wondering why the floor has suddenly become a moving target
What we have here, as I read it, is a man who (obviously) just walked his girl to the train station after a serious "relationship" conversation. It's probably awkward and uncomfortable - if it was a blowout argument he wouldn't be accompanying her, and besides, he just "said it wrong", something came out the wrong way, maybe he didn't really mean it, but it's out now and he can't get it back. I'm also thinking they were drinking pretty heavily. Things slip out easier then, and when he comes back, he's hungry and "suddenly" the floor's spinning.
(By the way, one of my favorite parts of this song is the little five note bass run he makes right after "food" in the verse (2:25) - in fact it's in the same place in each verse. Good stuff)
Then it's the first chorus (with the opening piano arpeggios behind it):
Four, three, two, one,
I'm letting you go
I will let go
If you will let go
The "countdown" there makes more thematic sense after the next verse, but isn't this just like a breakup? You may know it has to end - remember, I don't think there's a huge argument or anything here - but you can hardly bring yourselves to do it. You countdown, bargain, agree to still be friends, all the painful stuff that ,in the end, just leaves the wound open.
Says here an astronaut
Put on a pair of diapers
Drove eighteen hours
To kill her boyfriend
And in my hotel room, I'm wondering
If you read that story too?
And if we both might
Be having the same imaginary conversation
Here our dude's reading the paper, referencing this strange story form a couple of years ago about the NASA pilot who, in fact, put on adult diapers and drove all night to kill the boyfriend she suspected of cheating. Here, as I mentioned, the "four, three, two, one" countdown in the chorus can play both to a shuttle launch as well as the couple bracing themselves for the disillusion of their relationship.
One thing I like here as well - that feeling you have after a breakup of constantly wondering what your former partner is doing. Are they thinking about you too? Moving on? Out with a friend? Are they as sad as me? Would we be talking about this weird astronaut if we were together right now? Is she reading it at the same time I am, and are we thinking about the other reading it and having this "imaginary conversation"?
Back in the song, there's a brief bridge (with more astronaut imagery)
Weightless as I close my eyes
The ceiling opens in disguise
And the final verse:
Such a painful trip
To find out this is it
And when I go to sleep
You'll be waking up
I think the first two lines are pretty one the nose, no? The second speaks to not only the physical distance of time zones (remember the speaker's in Cologne, and I think it's safe to assume the girl's gone home to the States) but now the emotional distance as well. They are literally thousands of miles away, but in another way even further than that now.
A gorgeous, depressing song, but one that really captures the essence of a relationship dissolving. Based on the lyrics, though, I like to believe these two kids gave it another shot when he got back home. I hope they're happy, honestly...
To close, here's what I'm talking about with the two sides of Ben Folds. The album version of "Cologne" is pretty much just Ben, the piano, and that's it. (This is the closest I could find online)
But, as if he thinks that's too intimate, he has to release an over-the-top, ridiculous version with a full chorus, orchestral fills, and cheesy cinematography in the guise of a fictional European music show with a clueless host and a bizarre girl in a black cat costume. It's like insulating yourself from any real emotional outpouring in a way; it reminds me of the embarrassing morning one has after a night of deep, drunken conversation - a way of winking and saying, "Hey, I don't really mean this after all, ya know?"
(It is pretty hilarious, though)