How many good ideas do you need to write a song? The same as the number of different sections, of course! SongExpresso would say 3 is a good rule of thumb: for example chorus-verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus. Job done. If you have four or five you can have verse 3 and a middle 8. Or a pre-chorus. (Like drinks, probably best not to mix all of the above but, hey, I’m a coffee drinker not a barman).
That thing, though, when you’ve got one idea fewer than the number you need. If you’re already a global superstar, you’ll most likely have between three and eight co-writers whose opportunity this is to earn their piece. If you’re SongExpresso then you’ll probably have to do with the rhyming dictionary, thesaurus.com and your notebook of nuggets.
If the elusive part is another verse, and we have a strong first verse, pre-chorus and chorus, we might be tempted to worry less. Perhaps we can, ahem, bury the weaker verse in the middle somewhere and no-one will notice or care?
I’m sorry, Rachel (and Dave) and your millions of fans, it’s easy to criticise, and you are a global superstar now and I’m not. But might that be what happened here? The reason for caring is only admiration: the first verse is a thing of rare skill and judgement. In contrast, the second, frankly, is a really different thing. Let’s see.
(Rachel Platten, Dave Bassett)
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Like a small boat
On the ocean
We start gently, with a small boat. “Small” is a fairly generic word. There must be a million words for an actual small boat. Just like ocean is a proper word for a big sea. But this sets the scene nicely: the boat is simple, little, fragile and unimposing. And this word is, without being sexist or ageist, perfectly pitched for the target audience of this song. Compare with “standing in a nice dress” in the majestic Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams.
Sending big waves
We could say something similar about the word “big”: a simple word and the the symmetry is perfect. Also the theme is set of the small thing with the potentially great effect. 12 words, not one too many.
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion
Two more powerful images. Spot on. And we also lose the perfect rhyme. This might be a combination of not wanting to dilute the excellence of the images coupled with an intelligent decision not to be cheesy. Add a non-obvious chord for extra interest.
And all those things I didn’t say
Wrecking balls inside my brain
I will scream them loud tonight
Can you hear my voice this time?
The pre-chorus raises the excitement levels as it should. From the abstraction of the first verse, we get personal and I’d have to say, relatable. Regrets in the past, tonight time to cast them off and stand up. Sonically, SongExpresso isn’t entirely a fan of the “tonight-this time” rhyme. No matter: it’s on theme and works. And, we have no idea whether conscious or unconscious, but a nod to another song title that all listeners will recognise seems like a move of some genius.
This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
Being British, SongExpresso actually had no idea that a fight song was a sports team anthem thing (possibly some punk rock numbers from his youth might have fitted the category). It you don’t know this then it really doesn’t matter. The emphasis might come over a bit differently: “this is my FIGHT song” or “this is MY fight song”. Anyhow, it’s anthemic, singable, memorable and – let’s say it – in an uncomplicated way, “uplifting”.
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me
When you’ve got the stadium singing along, what’s the best thing to do? Keep them there. The cost of this of course is that we may start to run out of our strongest rhymes. “My power’s turned on” perhaps isn’t the greatest. But it’s ok, it still keeps the momentum going from the previous ones.
Losing friends and I’m chasing sleep
Everybody’s worried about me
In too deep
Say I’m in too deep (in too deep)
And it’s been two years
I miss my home
But there’s a fire burning in my bones
Yeah, I still believe
With the best will in the world, this part seems a bit of a jumble. I’m not sure whether it’s a bridge or a verse. We get various repetitions of “in too deep”. We get two “believes” (also a repeat from the end part of the chorus). And “two years” just sounds a bit random: this might be a true story but we don’t have the context. And “I miss my home”: why is this important? She didn’t say a lot of things, and was in too deep, OK, but this doesn’t seem to follow. For SongExpresso, lyrically, this is a missed opportunity. Getting so specific about the character’s situation risks breaking the mood, and taking us far, far away from the universality and relatability of the first verse.
Musically, I can’t say it doesn’t work. This part provides a perfect lull that makes us want to get back to the good bits, which we duly do: rising anticipation in the pre and all hands on deck for the chorus, the stellar first verse for contrast, and more chorus (hey!).
Bottom line: if the song was all fluff then SongExpresso would happily take it for what it is. But – a little like Turn Me On – having started so well, can we be forgiven for feeling a bit deflated? (Sunk?) All elements are there: melody, structure, feeling, tension, light and shade. Maybe SongExpresso is over-critical. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the 90% good is what we should focus on. It just seems like a missed chance and ambition abandoned when there was potential for something consistently great.
Is SongExpresso being unfair? Any other examples of songs that start with a bang and then find it hard to live up to that promise? As always, please let me know!