Monday, July 8, 2013

Post 19: Where Does A Song Clock In On The Words-Pictures Metric?


   I don't think I've actually stated this explicitly since my first ever post on here, so I'm not sure how well known of a fact this is, but this blog theoretically updates weekly every Friday night (which, translated into the tongue of common man, actually means between 3 and 6 am on Saturdays, strangely enough), so I want to apologize for posting this a day late. I tried to write something that ended up being terrible, so I decided to start over, and hopefully the end result will be more worth the time of those who read it.

   Anyway, recently I've been thinking a lot about songs that tell stories. You see this done in all or sorts of different styles, and it's interesting to look around and see how different artists approach storytelling through music. The thing is, like almost every other type of creative endeavor, songs have narratives, and so even if a classic story in the traditional sense is not told through the lyrics, the listener still goes through a journey. I mean, you can't listen to the Ride of The Valkyries and not visualize something incredible cresting into view as the climax occurs, whether or not you're familiar with the details of the full opera.

   So anyway, originally I was planning on writing about some songs I love that tell really interesting stories (think Bowie and a lot of classic folk), but while i was trying and failing to write about that in an interesting way, it occurred to me that a lot of the songs that I find most compelling, lyrically speaking, are not telling a full journey. I tend to listen to music for the melody and instrumentation first, and often relegate lyrics to third or fourth (or eighth, if I'm in that kind of mood). Most of the time that I connect with lyrics really meaningfully, it's not the full song that stands out to me so much as a single line or couplet that really resonates, and jumps out at me.

   Arcade Fire really excels at this kind of lyric, which is part of why I never shut up about them when I successfully corner someone into having a conversation about music with me (the other reason is that they're just generally great). All of their albums are simply full of standout lines, but one of my all time favorites is from Month Of May. The song is about directionless rebellious youth living in suburban sprawl, and while I didn't plan on quoting full tracts of lyrics for this post, I love this verse too much to skip it:

Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Well, some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
I said some things are pure, and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight

So young, so young
So much pain for someone so young
Well, I know it's heavy, I know it ain't light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

   I don't even love the rest of the song that much, but I find that verse so compelling that it just pulls every less stellar part of the song along with its sheer momentum. I have never heard anything else capture the sense of frustrated futility that seems so endemic to the condition of directionless young adults as perfectly as that. Also, as long as I'm on the topic there's another line I want to mention, from the song Sprawl I
The last defender of the sprawl
Said "Well, where do you kids live?"
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer's worth
Been searching every corner of the earth.....


   Basically what I'm trying and failing to say is that Arcade Fire perfectly captured the sense of displacement and confusion that plagues people entering adulthood, and if anyone reading this hasn't listened to The Suburbs at least, and preferably their full discography, they are profoundly missing out.

   Anyway, forcefully dragging myself away from Arcade Fire, I wanted to mention a song that is widely loved by the world at large, but almost universally reviled within the bounds of my family. Hotel California is a song that I grew up hearing my sisters constantly bash, which gave me a... slightly warped perspective on it, let's say. Until I moved away from my family I didn't understand that in most circles, the Eagles were not considered some foul hybrid between a joke and a terrorist act, so I had to deal with haters before I ever appreciated the song on its own terms. That being said, it's honestly a pretty great song, and I love the opening couplet, "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair/Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air". I'll admit it works better with the guitar intro, but that opening segment always transports me to the desert, just as the sun starts coming over the horizon. The song definitely has some flaws, but that image makes it worth wading through them..

  Actually, now that I think about it a lot of the songs I find compelling have that empty highway imagery in them. Scar Tissue by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example. I didn't have any idea what half the lyrics were until at least a couple of years after I first heard it, but I've always loved the chorus. That howled line of "With the birds I'll share this lonely view" always put me in mind of someone sitting in a beater parked in front of some forsaken gas station in the middle of nowhere (i.e. either North Dakota or Oklahoma), with nothing to do but slowly fall apart and watch the birds circle around. However, when you're you're ready to pull out and actually start driving across the flat and empty parts of America, the correct song is definitely Golden Age by Beck. I can't really list a single lyrical fragment that describes how this song makes me feel, because the entire thing is perfect. If you have ever found yourself driving in the middle of nowhere, on a hot summer night at 2 in the morning just as as the air starts to cool down to a bearable level and suddenly just found a snatch of complete serenity, this song captures that feeling. If you haven't, you're missing out; it's an incredible sensation. The good news is, listening to the Golden Age will give you a pretty solid approximation of that feeling. Just for completeness' sake, I will say I love the line "Let the desert wind/Cool your aching head/Let the weight of the world/ Drift away instead", but you're really missing out if you don't know the full song.

  And lastly, I really want to mention They Might Be Giants. I've only talked aobut them a few times on here, but I absolutely love them and they have so many fantastic lines in their songs it would be criminal not a to throw out at least a couple. I should mention that in spite of the fact that I've been an avid fan of their work for a good fifteen years or so at this point, I still have no idea what half of these lyrics mean. TMBG's stuff tends to somewhat cryptic even at its most transparent, and most of my favorite stuff by them leans heavily towards opacity. But anyway, one of my favorite ever lines by them is from She's An Angel: "We both said, "I really love you,"/The Shriners loaned us cars/We raced up and down the sidewalk twenty thousand million times". The song itself is... a love song, I guess, about how you react when you end up falling in love with a literal angel, as opposed to a figurative one. However, the important thing, the takeaway, I want to leave any readers unfamiliar with the piece, is that it's a love song that talks about racing Shriner cars. This is why I love them; if that line does not enchant you, then we clearly have very different perspectives on what kind of things make life worth living.

And lastly, here's a couple of bonus songs, because I couldn't decide which one I wanted to share more. one is a rambunctious pop song with a killler banjo line, one is an atmospheric piece filled with some Londoner producing lyrics via a method that seems halfway between a slur, a mumble, and classic singing. They're both totally rad, go have fun listening to them. Also, I'm interested to hear what any readers have to say on the topic of songs with really evocative lyrics. I try to keep these lists relatively short as a general rule, but I think it's an interesting topic and I'd like to hear what kind of lines resonate with other people. If you've got a good one, I'd love to hear it!