Frank Ocean’s “Close to You” & the Mercy of a Breakup

“Close to You” is no simple interlude; it is a calling out into the void for ease.
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Every morning, before emails start rolling in, I’ve been reading Charles Bukowski’s Love Is A Dog From Hell. It’s a nice thick tome of Buk’s signature poetry, not to be confused with the Essential Bukowski poetry I have lined up to read next, nor the On Love anthology of Buk’s best love poems. Yes, Charles fancied himself a love poet more often than not—and he wrote about women leaving him with a ruddy grace. 

Take these lines from “melancholia,” written sometime between 1974 and 1977:

“the history of melancholia / includes all of us. // me, I write in dirty sheets / while staring at blue walls / and nothing. // I have gotten so used to melancholia / that / I greet it like an old / friend. // I will now do 15 minutes of grieving / for the lost redhead / I tell the gods. // I do it and feel quite bad / quite sad, / then I rise / CLEANSED / even though nothing is / solved.”

Is this verse not eerily close to the brevity and relieved pain of Frank Ocean’s “Close to You” cover? 

Produced by Francis and the Lights, Frank, and Buddy Ross, “Close to You” is a cover of a Stevie Wonder cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You.” Legend has it that Frank heard the Stevie cover, and his soul left his body, as good music often inspires the soul to flit away. What comes next is a cornerstone of Blonde

Following the “Facebook Story” skit and “Pretty Sweet,” “Close to You” is the evolved version of channel ORANGE’s “End,” showcasing the need for mercy during a breakup. It mirrors the above Bukowski lines in that both poets use the end of a relationship to delve into the endless rise of emotions we bottle as humans.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated / But you could’ve held my hands through this, baby,” Frank intones on the opening lines of “Close to You,” echoing the closing lines of the fifth stanza of “melancholia.” The “CLEANSED” feeling Buk writes about aligns with Frank’s lack of devastation—we’ve come a long way from begging lovers not to leave us—and yet both men require mercy in the face of pain. 

Bukowski writes of grieving and God-promises, of knowing hurt all too well, while Frank is more subtle in his approach, asking for his hand to be held. The “could’ve” of the second line transmits a desperate emotion. Almost to the point of Frank feeling slighted, but the chilly vocals don’t give way to a heightened or frenzied feeling.

Later in “melancholia,” Bukowski writes: 

“the lost redhead was just another / smash in a lifelong / loss…” which feels kindred to Frank’s singing “I run my hands through what’s left / But we’re getting older, baby / Don’t have much longer baby.” 

These sets of lines, taken together, show us how a breakup is not the catalyst for their project-wide ego deaths, but rather, is a symptom of a lifetime of aching. The difference in their word choice is clear, too. Frank relies on wistful images and the quiet of the poem, while Buk needs hard facts and barely touches the fanciful.

These opposing approaches come to showcase the breadth of a breakup’s impact on a person. Both men seek mercy, clearly. Both men look for an out from what is hurting them. Bukowski will likely turn to the bottle, sucking on a beer as he often does. Frank Ocean turns to—as across all of Blonde—memory for comfort. 

Just like mine, versions of these belong to you / After a while, they’re keeping me close to you,” Frank sings to end the lone verse. The first line here is a testament to the morphing quality of memory, how we do not own our past; it belongs to everyone involved. The second line, then, is a testament to how memory can keep us tethered to the people long gone. Buk has his poems, his recycling of memories, and Frank has his poems, too.

It seems both Frank Ocean and Charles Bukowski relive their pasts so many times over in the pursuit of closure. They begin their works by asking for mercy from the people leaving them, and they close their respective works thinking on their past lives. The final voice we hear on “Close to You” is not even Frank’s, but Stevie Wonder’s. This turn suggests there is no closure for Frank Ocean—he cannot complete his song because he did not get mercy, and therefore he did not get to reach a point of healing. Yet. 

As for Buk, he ends “melancholia” by saying, “there is something wrong with me / besides / melancholia.” His heartbreak is but one fixture of his endless emotional torment. No closure, either.

So, let’s return to those opening lines. The beginning of everything we encounter in life holds most of the keys to the future. Do we believe Frank and Bukowski when they suppose a lack of devastation and a “CLEANSED” feeling—only “15 minutes of grieving” mind you. Or, do we think these two poets are writing around their true feelings? 

Considering the viscera of the rest of Love Is A Dog From Hell, and the nostalgic longing that precedes and follows “Close to You,” we could argue that these two works are in conversation with each other far more than they are in conversation with the writers’ honest emotions.

Yes, Frank and Buk are seeking mercy in their time of need. It seems as though neither one received such a blessing. They have turned to the pen, hoping to erase their pain and satisfy their own needs. Though they are unsuccessful in the emotive sense, what we are left with are two incredible moments in modern and contemporary art history. We are left with two all-time sets of verses, wherein we see the way heartbreak can make a man into something new to the eye. 

“Close to You” is no simple interlude; it is a calling out into the void for ease. Where in the past, Frank sang of his God giving him pleasure, he now sings to his God, hoping for relief. It’s growth by way of anguish—which I know is a Mac Miller line—and it makes Frank all the more appealing as a writer.

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