Taken from his album Waiting for the Truth, “What This Is” is a thumping folk song, colored a lot by gypsy fiddle and a touch of organ. The lyric is deeply philosophical. It also asks more questions than it ever answers.
The first verse finds Smith stating, “We don’t fight any more/We never really could.” Next he asks the first two of many questions. “Does that mean you don’t love me/Or that you ever would.” These lines beg the question: If a couple doesn’t fight, does that mean they never loved each other? It’s difficult to make such a case. Humans probably fight with those they dislike, more than with those they like, but even the best of couples quarrel sometimes. No two people are exactly alike, so disagreements are inevitable. Therefore, these first questions reveal a more confused person, than anything else. It’s unreasonable, one would assume, to jump to such an unloved conclusion, as does Smith.
The next verse suggests that there is love, or something like it, in this relationship.
Your friends seem to like me
I make your mama smile
We can sit in silence
And sit there for a while
When a partner’s friends like you, that’s always a good sign. If you can make her mother smile, that’s never a bad thing. The next two lines, though, are a little troubling. “We can sit in silence/And sit there for a while.” Does this suggest an inability to make even light conversation? Sitting in silence, doing what exactly? If it’s looking in each other’s eyes, well, well, that’s a positive. But sitting quietly and awkwardly, that’s a big red flag.
The song’s next verse is even more confusing.
Is it love or is it fear
Going down the road
I carry on my shoulders
Or will we share the load
So, to begin with, Smith personifies love and fear, which then walks down the road. Although it’s an awkward lyrical transition, Smith then suggests he carries these two emotions (presumably) on his shoulders, and then wonders if his partner will help him carry these feelings. At this point, I’m with Smith, who sings: “I don’t know, I don’t know what this is.”
Smith is even more mystical with the last verse.
I don’t know all that much
By now you’d think I learned
But I know in my heart
All the things we’ve earned.
Smith ends the song by concluding, “Now I know what this is, now I know what love is.” The listener is happy for Smith and his education. Nevertheless, if this were a math problem, Greg Smith doesn’t exactly show us his work. How he reached this conclusion is not detailed in the song’s various verses.
Smith’s vocal is thoughtful and reserved. It’s as though he’s thinking out loud. He’s given us a song that makes us scratch our head. You may listen multiple times, like I did, but be left wondering what it is all about. This is likely how Smith wants it. He doesn’t appear to want to show us his hand. Instead, he prefers to drop clues and let the listener draw their own conclusion. So, whatever it is, it’s certainly something unusual.