The Good Nurse (2000)
deep elm records
"This family only meets in hospitals and funerals." That fun-loving line, from the first song on "The Good Nurse," is not a bad summary of the record, which pursues Five Eight driving force Mike Mantione's apparent fascination with serious illness and death. Most of the songs are not explicitly about nurses. But they do reflect concern with how illness affects our lives, including our relations with health workers. A nurse narrator/facilitator--The Good Nurse--surfaces now and again in the mix to explain, conversationally, how we deal with being sick. The band has stressed that it is older and bigger than the "emo" label, and its well-received self-titled 2004 release seems to support that claim. But Mantione's keening and brooding do dominate "The Good Nurse." And the record seems to present nurses as pragmatic experts whose role is to help us cope with the inevitable decay of our bodies and minds.
The song titles on the veteran Athens, GA trio's 2000 record are a little clue to what's coming: "Terminals," "Requiem," "Oh Surgery," "All My Patients." As the band pounds out competent, generally dark alt-rock, Mantione wails morosely about different sides of nurses and physicians, and about wheelchairs, malignancy, medicine, sleeping, weeping, hurting, dying and the dead. The catchy but sad "Orlando" asks: "Why do we raise the dead with every argument?" In "She's Sleeping," we seem to hear about an unconscious surgical patient:
Your doctor's young and he's wringing from you every last breath
His oath tonight, it seems like hypocrisy coming from his lips
He is breathing while you're dreaming all alone.
On the other hand, in "Oh Surgery" the speaker suggests that
Things happen inside us
A surgeon's hand can heal...
Completely knock me out
And take these demons out
And cut from within my soul
This angry little hole.
In "All My Patients," the relation between patient and caregiver seems to get even more intimate, though no less ambivalent:
In the scientific world of medicine
These minds agree on a theory
Do you trust me?
Do you love me?
All my patients really love these
You're my patient, do you love me?
I want you to
I need you too.
It's not clear what specific kind of caregiver this song is about. But it's not exactly a happy vision, with a seemingly insecure health practitioner talking up some kind of product with a request for trust he or she does not seem sure is deserved.
Then there are the nurses. On the album's cover is an oil painting by Terry Rowlett ("The Good Nurse") showing a slim, youngish nurse dressed demurely in a traditional white nurse's dress, her head framed by a white cloud. She stands feet together in the foreground of a somewhat arid, hilly outdoor landscape. In one arm, she holds what seems to be some flowers. Her expression seems noncommittal, though the image is so small it's hard to tell. It's not exactly a modern or natural image, and you could see it as vaguely suggesting the angel stereotype. And "The One Who Does Better" offers an opinion on two basic categories of nurses:
The good nurse knows the way
Her tender little fingers made to shape the clay
I'm going to show you how this feels
The good nurse gives you blood
A bad one gives you mixture
She shuns away the weight
It pushes you away.
I'm not so sure about the diminutive "tender little fingers"--more potential angel overtones--but otherwise the lyrics seem to associate good care with the skilled shaping of patients' conditions and with life-sustaining fluids, and bad care with dilution or impurity, with slacking and rejection. This ambivalence seems consistent with the record's views of physicians.
But the album isn't called "The Bad Nurse." Mantione seems more interested in how "good nurses" can help us in the midst of the largely bleak state of existence the record presents. Of course, it's possible that his vision of "good nurses" is not limited to actual nurses, but may extend to those he believes relate to others in similar ways. Throughout the album, a person the liner notes refer to as The Good Nurse (whose voice the notes say is that of "Karen Kassenger, RN") provides reasonable background commentary that brings this out. In "The One Who Does Better," the Good Nurse talks about processing what's happening and thinking about what's important in life, presumably at a time of illness. In "Alexander Graham Bell," a tongue-in-cheek meditation on "scientific triumph," the Good Nurse notes that "you never go back to who you were before you had cancer." In "Oh Surgery," someone, apparently Mantione, goes on a kind of manic monologue about trying to cope with illness and life generally (Mantione reportedly has bipolar disorder). A female voice, apparently a nurse though not the Good Nurse, then provides a matter-of-fact explanation of how to defibrillate a patient, complete with background beeping. And as the album winds down, the Good Nurse appears in the background of "All My Patients" and the instrumental "A Close Approximation" to discuss embracing life and being "open to the goodness that will be in this time for you."
Of course, even though most things we hear the Good Nurse say are not exactly easy cliches, it's possible that Mantione means to convey that they are inadequate to help us handle life-threatening conditions. But given most of the imagery and the heartfelt general approach of the album, it seems more likely that the nursing elements are meant to give listeners some sense of the basic interactions serious illness may entail. Contrary to what you see on TV, if you have serious chronic illness, you're likely to be spending a lot of time talking to nurses about your condition. Or at least, you will if the nurses are not short-staffed.
Apart from a second, acoustic version of "Oh Surgery," the album closer is the touching, acoustic "Florence." You might guess this would be about Ms. Nightingale. Instead, the song seems to be about preparing the body of a just-deceased older woman for her final goodbye ("It's better than blood thinners and oxygen masks"). But the final lines of "Florence" may still have something to say about the "Good Nurse":
Though she's gone into the arms of God
I'm so glad to have known someone so strong but not hard.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed December 21, 2005
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.