It used to be much harder to call someone. If you were driving on an interstate highway, it was particularly challenging. You would look for a McDonalds or a gas station, hoping it had a pay phone. If there was a pay phone, you either needed coins or a calling card. Calling cards could be pre-paid in an amount like $5 or $20. Later on, calling cards could be linked to your credit card. And when you did call, you couldn’t be sure that there would be a person to pick up on the other end.
Of course now, it’s ridiculously easy to call someone. You touch a screen and suddenly you’ve connected to another person. I bought my first mobile phone from my friend Milad when we were both college freshmen. That was in 2000 and I was 18. For four years of high school, I relied on pay phones when I needed a ride, which was often. By 17, I was driving so this became less common, but there were times I still got rides, especially when weather conditions made driving difficult.
This song, “Calling Cards” (off the 2013 album, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You“) by Neko Case expresses nostalgia for the era of pay phones. Interestingly, Maroon 5 made a song called “Pay Phone” around the same time. If you didn’t grow up with pay phones, you might not realize how much a pay phone call meant. A pay phone call then meant something different from what a mobile phone call means now. You knew it took some effort to make the call. There was a bit of desperation in a pay phone call. Of course, virtually everyone had phones at home so a pay phone call might have meant that the person just couldn’t wait to talk to you.
Neko Case is talking about calling another musician. She says, it was good “to hear you in those songs you wrote/ Made me think there was something coming.” It sounds like she was touring at the time because she called from a pay phone. Remember, she’s talking about an era in which we weren’t constantly updating people on our “status.” When people didn’t know how someone was doing, they called someone.
Then there’s there this poignant bit, “Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heartbreak
I love you more.” Presumably, the truck stops are where she is stopping to call. Each point of contact draws her closer to this person. If her relationship is a book, each call is a page. The heartbreaks and disappointments that we choose to share with others makes us better friends and stronger families.
She mentions the satellites that “blew up” the pay phones. She means that mobile phones, linked by connections with satellites, killed the pay phones. She says,
“Even when we’re not together
With our arms around each other
With our faith still in each other.”
It’s a beautiful wish to say that you want to imagine your arms around your loved one, even when you’re not physically together. And you put faith in each other. You trust each other. You speak honestly to each other.
She ends by saying, “I’ve got calling cards from twenty years ago.” Clearly, a 20-year-old calling card isn’t going to let you make calls. But she can’t throw them away. It’s a memento. It’s a souvenir. It reminds her of her past and of her friend as well as the relationship they shared. The melody of the song is gentle and soft. It’s a bit melancholy, but not depressing. Together, the melody and lyrics describe a sweet memory of a time long past.