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The Meaning of The Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads”

The Head and The Heart (2011)

“Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart is an emotional song about the passing of time and how it changes circumstances in life, oftentimes separating people who were once close friends. The song was released on the band’s self-titled debut album, which was self-released by the band in 2009 and later given a major label release via Sub Pop in 2011.

The Head and the Heart struck a nerve with listeners due to its tender songwriting and gentle, patient arrangements that still manage to pack a mighty punch in the right moments. “Rivers and Roads” is one of these moments, with an energy that builds as the song progresses through its two verses and into the crescendo that comes with the repeated chorus at the end.

The popularity of “Rivers and Roads” is partially thanks to the fact that it was included in at least four TV shows, including the series finale of NBC’s Chuck, plus appearances in How I Met Your Mother, The Good Doctor, and Fox’s New Girl.

“Rivers and Roads” is also commonly used as a going away song at sleep away summer camps, plus graduations and any other occasion that involves the physical separation due to life circumstances of people who love each other. Anybody who has experienced this knows that it can be very difficult to say goodbye to your friends after sharing some formative experiences together.

Let’s dive into the lyrics and see what “Rivers and Roads” is all about, starting with the gently-sung first verse:

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they’re goin’ to better places
But our friends will be gone away
Nothin’ is as it has been
And I miss your face like hell
And I guess it’s just as well
But I miss your face like hell

First verse to “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart.

This verse is a musing on times that have passed, and knowing that special moments must be savored because you never know where time will take things a year from now. “Rivers and Roads” seems to draw from experience, stating that time will take our friends away from us.

Sometimes they may be go new and better places, and while we may be happy for them in these cases, that will not stop us from missing them. Woven into this is the idea that time will inevitably alter things, as looking back it’s clear to see that nothing is the same as it had been in the past.

From here, the energy builds, first with a vocal interlude that is backed by a rising tension in the arrangement, and then the second and final verse, sung with a bit more emphasis than the first one:

Been talkin’ ’bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
If you don’t know what to make of this
Then we will not relate
So if you don’t know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

Second verse to “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart.

It seems that while writing this song, the band had been thinking about change a lot, remembering old friends, and discussing it among themselves and with the friends that were still around. There is a nostalgic feel here, thinking about your family living states away and you trying to find your way through the world in the locale that you find yourself inhabiting.

The lyrics continue to say that if you don’t understand what it’s like to feel the pain of missing a friend who has moved on with their life, then you will have a hard time relating with The Head and the Heart. This suggests that the band is quite sentimental, and considers cherishing friendships and other close bonds with utmost importance.

The tension continues to build coming out of the second verse, with another vocal interlude followed by the repeated chorus:

Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers ’til I reach you
Rivers and roads
Oh rivers and roads
Oh rivers ’til I reach you

Chorus / outro to “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart (repeated).

Repetition and a break of the rising tension in the arrangement make for somewhat of a catharsis in the ending of “Rivers and Roads”. The lyrics represent becoming overwhelmed with longing for this person that you decide to hit the road, hit the rivers, whatever it takes until you reach this special friend.

Many of us have memories of visiting old friends in new places, or of wanting to see an old friend again but not being able to due to circumstances that come with the passing of time. The outpouring of emotion that closes out this song is representative of needing to come back into contact with someone who has had an important place in your life, and how you would do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Listen to the anthem of change and missing old friends, “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart below.