“Fight Song”: Rachel Platten – that difficult second verse

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.

“Fight Song”
(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
Into motion

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
Still believe
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!

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“Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” – Chris Cornell – Feeling! Structure! Mandolins!

The admirable Kendal Osborne recently commented that banjos can never really sound sad, though mandolins can…

Pretty interesting. And there really aren’t so many mandolins around in mainstream music (so few that the music magazines unimaginatively couldn’t resist referring to Chris being ‘inspired’ by Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore”. Anyone else hear that song in this song? Not me).

So what about the song? SongExpresso’s normal mission is to review songs with outstanding lyrics. And in SongExpresso’s house, Chris Cornell has near untouchable status for his past work (and sublime vocals). [But, speaking very quietly, these lyrics really aren’t so outstanding… ‘right’ to rhyme with ‘ripe’ and ‘right’ in the same verse? And the ‘hole in the head’ line seems not quite to fit into the melody (or the mix). Anyways…]

For a change, SongExpresso just wants you to take a listen to the song structure, for yes, here maybe we can learn some things:

Intro: mandolin solo
Verse 1: plus vocal
Verse 2: plus bass and strings
Chorus: plus acoustic guitar and piano
Verse 3: plus drums
Verse 4: plus backing vocals
Chorus: keep going!
Middle 8: back most things off a bit
Solo: plus fuzzy lead guitar
Middle 8 again: where did that come from?
Chorus: strip down to just mandolin and vocals for the first part and then build again
Final Chorus: bring back everything, including fuzzy guitar over the top.

(not counting various pads and effects and other synthy things inevitable in professional studio productions).

It’s a long list… It’s not just Verse-PreChorus-Chorus-Verse-Prechorus-Chorus. And SongExpresso found – if not the lyrics – the soundscape and feeling (aha!) quirkily attractive. So on to the takeaways:

  • Unusual instruments: mandolin! fuzzy guitar! Not for everyone or every song but these do place this song in a very individual and not totally commercial space. Bold (folky? trippy?) choices. Care is needed with this for those of us that don’t have Chris’s heroic voice (and fan-base) to carry the song. But in these days of electronic instruments, these are available to all of us to add individuality (to the right demo at least).
  • Build: again, some bold choices here. No drums for over a minute. But it doesn’t lose our interest. SongExpresso thinks this is partly due to the “plucky” percussive mandolin sound (and strings) providing a rhythm track. Then we have the appearance of various different instrumentation, and of course the vocals which are the star turn. By the time we get to verse 3 we have been through around 5 different levels of instrumentation – to SongExpresso’s ear this is pretty unusual but potentially usable to our advantage.
  • Middle 8(s): someone once said that the middle 8 should be the high point of the song. SongExpresso thinks that is good advice – the break, bridge or middle 8 shouldn’t be an afterthought or just a break from the continuity of the song, but really add something new, emotionally, feeling-wise (there it is again), most likely through a noticeable change-up of rhythm, melody or progression. What’s interesting here is that Chris liked his so much he did it twice. Who else has done this? Again, not for all songs, but if the middle 8 really is the best passage, why not repeat?
  • Guitar solo I: rumours of the death of the guitar solo may be exaggerated… However, SongExpresso insists that – like drums – guitar solos have to serve the song and not the other way around. What’s the purpose of this one here? It does break up the double middle 8 (middle 16 anyone?) which probably was necessary. And it serves as an instrumental chorus – another vocal chorus would have been too much. Finally, being based on the chorus, it can be added over the final chorus to give us yet another level of build. SongExpresso is not convinced that any of these actually justify the addition of the solo: if this was a deliberately “commercial” song then I’m sure we would have had just one middle 8 and maybe brought the fuzzy guitar in over the final chorus for a bit more hype anyway. But on balance it seems to have been a good choice, to accomodate the double middle 8 and continue to add interest.
  • Guitar solo II: saying the same thing in a different way, if you must have a guitar solo, keep it short and make it go for maximum one chorus – then you can bring it back over your final chorus. (If you are a rock band, ignore what I just said. Of course.)

Is SongExpresso being unfair on those lyrics? What other song examples are there with as many as six levels of build? Who else has used two middle 8s? Is the guitar solo dead in commercial music? Should it be? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear your thoughts.

Because this is filler, filler night…

Take this SongExpresso verse:

“My tired eyes
Were looking forward to your bed
But now they’re getting used to the idea
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

The idea here is not to promote SongExpresso’s works, but real life examples are always helpful, right? (But does the world seriously need yet another breakup song? – Ed.) 

It was just “OK”. First draft. Some “synecdoche” going on. But the third line was supposed to have eight syllables. And scan. Ugh. Paralysis? No! Do the work…

“But now they’re coming to the conclusion” ?

Still sounds off. Work harder. What are we looking for? Eight syllables, scans in a singable way. Possibly something that works with the eyes reference. Next try:

“But it looks as if from now on
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

Well at least it scans. And contains the word “looks”. But what new information does this give us? Nada. That line has no purpose whatsoever but to take us to the next line. And it’s boring. Do you know what you created? Yeah, filler. Good enough? Not for SongExpresso. 

“Considering the prospect?” (Jason Isbell already took that one in a much classier way). “Now they’re realising?” Hmmm. SongExpresso is frustrated. Seriously considering junking the whole verse. Take dog for a walk.

SongExpresso (and his dog) cannot rest until this is perfected. So where did it end up?

“But the realisation’s dawning
That they’ll be closing all alone instead.”

SongExpresso won’t say “nailed it”, but it’s a huge improvement – proper length, a tinge of personal insight, and slightly more interesting vocabulary – “dawning”, to fit into that night-time theme.

What’s the moral? Do the work. If you care about your listeners. Or if you just care. Please care.

And you know what? That verse never made it into the finished song. SongExpresso decided that it needed to be “Guilty eyes” and the whole thing needed to go in a different direction. More work. But the song turned out as good as it could be, with no stone (or rhyming dictionary or thesaurus) unturned. That’s what we’re here for. (If curious, a dodgily recorded demo of the song can be listened to here.)

Sometimes it’s hard: “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes. You’re paralysed…”

No you’re not, unless you want to. Get a shot of SongExpresso and do the work.

I wrote a blues. I wrote a rap. I wrote International English.

“Hey, I wrote a blues!” “Seriously?” “Yeah, I quite like it.” “Are you a blues player?” “Umm, well I do a bit and this one just seemed to, like, come out.”

“Hey, I wrote a rap!” “Seriously?” “Yes – good flow, nice rhymes.” “Are you a rapper?” “Umm, well not really but I had these lyrics, and it just seemed to fit, you know.”

Now, SongExpresso likes a good blues. But the blues has somehow turned into an international language enabling guitarists (and others) of all abilities the world over to jam instantly. Yeah, hear my scale tones! 

And, as regular readers also know by now, SongExpresso likes some good hip-hop. But, again, hip-hop has turned into a some sort of worldwide thing where anyone can participate. Yay, hear my rebelliousness!

It’s cool. Let’s make music and have a good time. Are there any rules? Who cares?

SongExpresso thinks this can sometimes be a little bit like international English. International English is an amazing thing that allows people from all over the world to communicate using words. However, if you ask an actual English-speaking person, then probably this is a bit like the language they speak if it had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a near replica. Like SongInstantCoffee… (TM waived).

Please don’t stop writing blues or rap. If it is your intention to write blues or rap. But can they sometimes be a tempting refuge for lyrics or music that don’t have anywhere else to go? Can they sometimes be a lazy way out if we are not struck by melodic inspiration? No! Collaborate, leave in the freezer, do over in the style of another artist. Do the work…

Writing original melodies is one of the hardest things. Anyone else sometimes tempted to fit into pre-existing styles that aren’t really our own? How do you get over melodic blocks? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear… 

“The Special Two” – a brilliant marriage of Mr Regret and Ms Despair

SongExpresso may be a little bit in love. Having had a SongCrush(TM) at various times on Suzanne Vega and Neil Finn, it was almost inevitable that he would end up being drawn to Missy Higgins. Honest tunes in an honest voice – result: melted SongExpresso heart.

The best way to explain all this is to dive straight into “The Special Two”::

The Special Two
(MISSY HIGGINS, Published by Control)

Album The Sound of White, 2005

I’ve hardly been outside my room in days
’cause I don’t feel that I deserve the sunshine’s rays
The darkness helped until the whiskey wore away
and it was then I realized the conscience never fades.

So it’s a break-up song. Yadda-yadda? Could be, but note the use of the word “conscience” – that’s not the same as “because I wasn’t good enough” or “I hate my life”. Is a theme emerging? Let’s listen on….

When you’re young you have this image of your life:
that you’ll be scrupulous and one day even make a wife.

Firstly, any lyrics containing the word scrupulous are automatically going to get me interested. But, again, the choice of word is deliberate and telling. So if she wasn’t scrupulous, what did she do? Also who would use the word “scrupulous”? – perhaps a literate and thoughtful person and not someone who strolls amorally through life. And “even” make a wife – maybe she was wayward as a younger person but imagined that she’d settle down and move on. We get a little taste of who this character is.

And you make boundaries you’d never dream to cross,
and if you happen to you wake completely lost.

So she definitely crossed a boundary. “Happened” to do so. In the context of what we just heard, is this a hint that this self-imposed boundary might have been in conflict with her real self, and perhaps there was something inevitable about her crossing it? Nevertheless, now she’s “lost” and the regret is tangible. Subtle things, but the character and story are unfolding. We’re not directly told that the misdemeanour was the cause of the break up – but we’re sure it was.

But I will fight for you, be sure that
I will fight until we’re the special two once again.

OK, so she will fight – but I think, like the chorus below, we can take this two ways. On its face we can see a vivid plea to get back together, a compelling reassurance that the passion will return as it is meant to. On other hand, do we detect an undercurrent of a little warning, threatening and bordering on the obsessive? SongExpresso feels drawn to the darker interpretation…

And we will only need each other, we’ll bleed together,
our hands will not be taught to hold another’s,
’cause we’re the special two.
And we could only see each other, we’ll breathe together,
these arms will not be taught to need another’s,
’cause we’re the special two.

This is quite imperative – we will only need and see each other, and that is an order! The use of the word bleed also maintains us in a state of red alert. And the hands and arms not being “taught”: it’s a really effective phrase showing their natural state of being with each other and rebelling against usurpers, but if we are going the darker route, a bit unnerving, as if any attempt to tame them will end badly…

I remember someone old once said to me:
“that lies will lock you up with truth the only key.”

Now it gets more complex – not only did she cross the boundary, she worries about whether to come clean. Uh-oh, going to get messy.

But I was comfortable and warm inside my shell,
and couldn’t see this place could soon become my hell.

And it did get messy. Taking for granted that their relationship was strong enough to survive, it looks like she opted for honesty. Uh-oh again.

So is it better to tell and hurt or lie to save their face?
Well I guess the answer is don’t do it in the first place.

Still going round and round on this. It was an impossible choice anyway. Intractable guilt, ill-advised soul-baring, and resulting burnt bridges pile on the regret.

I know I’m not deserving of your trust from you right now,
but if by chance you change your mind you know I will not

let you down ’cause we were the special two, and will be again.

Is reality biting? At first not necessarily: “right now” hints that things can still work out. But then it probably does: if “by chance” you change your mind – even in borderline psycho-stalker mode, deep down she seems to know that this is a long shot. All in keeping with the cerebral and tormented character we see in the song.

[Chorus]

I step outside my mind’s eye’s for a minute
And I look over me like a doctor looking for disease,
or something that could ease the pain.
But nothing cures the hurt, you, you bring on by yourself,
just remembering, just remembering how we were…

Kapow. She comes to the realisation that not only is the situation hopeless and all she has is memories, that she only has herself to blame, but potentially also – though I hesitate to go too far here – that she might even see herself teetering on the edge of an unhealthy mental state.

[Chorus]

The final chorus is a touch different and follows on from the line before:

remembering how we were…
When we would only need each other….

The past tense puts the special relationship further away in time, no longer within retrievable reach. Perhaps she is becoming more resigned to the fact and pulling away (painfully) from the ravine of desperation.

_______

Let’s take a minute to appreciate the richness and intensity. For SongExpresso, just the title in itself is already up there with the great titles like “Un-Break my Heart”. But she has taken it to so many more layers of meaning:

  • “We’re the special two, special, two, us, together, forever” (yay, Celine Idol!)
  • “We were the special two but now you’re gone and I’m sad and wish it could all be back like it was before” (I’ve got the nicely-titled-but-seen-it-all-before blues)
  • “We were the special two but now you’re gone and I’m sad and it’s all my fault” (emo, definitely)
  • “We were the special two but now you’re gone and it’s all my fault because deep down I am prone to self-sabotage” (Nashville, no?)
  • “We were the special two but now you’re gone and it’s all my fault because deep down I am prone to self-sabotage and naivety, as well as a sense of guilt and morality I inherited somewhere in my youth, which now is threatening to make me somewhat unhinged, but even I can see that” (only Missy Higgins).

Missy (if I may be so bold) could have left it in any one of those other places and I am sure we would have had a satisfying and memorable song. But by layering on this additional complexity we have a great song. We are led gradually into the darkness of a mind almost broken, hopefully temporarily, by despair and regret. (Probably that’s not the way it worked and she started from a – reportedly real – complex and intense emotional situation, and wrung it into song form, but you get the point.)

We may not want or be able to emulate this every time. But we can bear in mind a couple of things at least: 

  • every word counts to make or break our mood or to build up or deflate our story – so as here they should all be considered and deliberate;
  • the order and speed in which things are revealed are important – we want to build logically and each time add something new and relevant. If a verse doesn’t do this should we even keep it? Did we give away the entire story at the beginning? Why? Do we need to re-order, be more subtle, so our story accumulates in a more interesting and attention-grabbing way?
  • as a small final point, consider how the word you appears in both its meanings (“when you’re young you have an image…” and “I will fight for you”). Depending on where you’re from, like me you probably do this all the time in normal speech – and the tone of this song is very natural in that way – but when we’re doing this we just need to be aware of any potential for confusion that this might bring with it (none here).

I don’t think SongExpresso is reading too much into this: it’s all there if we listen. And it’s not a one-off (get the album, get all the albums). While SongExpresso goes away wistfully to rename his cat “Missy”, as always, let us know your thoughts.

Are you sure it’s a song?

The other day, SongExpresso presented a songwriting collaborator with a steaming pile of lyrics without a melody. Only to be asked “Is this some kind of spoken word thing?” Ouch. I had written prose.

I loved the concept and some of the detail. But I was having endless difficulties with it. Melody, like an upside-down magnet, was refusing to attach to the lyrics. Chords would scatter bird-like away from my lyrical dogs.

Maybe there was no “prosody”. Or maybe I was relying too much on prosody to do the work, expecting melody to flow naturally out of the words. Not to mention that there was a radical internal rhyme scheme where the rhyme would appear in different places in each verse, but this ultimately only went to add confusion and subtract satisfaction.

In retrospect all this is normal. SongExpresso thinks you can tell where a set of lyrics have been written at a desk and then later put to music (all Squeeze and Elton John songs probably excepted). As they say, a desk is a dangerous place

A lyrical idea can happen in isolation at any time. But then it isn’t a song, just an idea. If it doesn’t have rhythm and feeling it may just be prose. You can impose some structure and develop ideas on paper or a computer and possibly hear instruments in your head (if you are Beethoven). Otherwise, your idea needs to be put in a taxi, taken to a party, and sat next to a musical instrument (or made to dance flirtatiously with lots of musical instruments until it finds one it likes). Then they need to spend time together so that their bits crystallize into a song.

You can – and should – go back to the desk and work more. But doing that is much more likely to produce a song after magnetic melody has adhered to your words, and chords of grouse have settled around your lyrical corn.

SongExpresso’s collaborator in this case was a “get a demo done” type of person, a fresh approach that really helped. What do you do when you get lyrics without a melody? How do you take it to the next stage? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your ideas and experiences.
 

Cracking creative blocks using reverse engineering

Yes, it can be hard to come up with a compelling story, intriguing characters and find a satisfying resolution in just a few minutes. Making it musical and lyrically arousing is not the problem – that’s what we do. But we’ve all been there. Sometimes we just need a fresh idea.

Two words: music video. The other night, SongExpresso had a craving for a bit of accessible drum and bass and came across two memorable Rudimental videos: “Not Giving In” and “Waiting All Night”. Firstly, hats off to the makers Josh Cole and Nez Khammal. Their role visually was actually not much different to what we are doing lyrically – take a theme and imagine a whole world around it to portray that story in a short time. In the short time of the length of a song. 

Go on, watch those examples and think about (i) the actual lyrics and (ii) where the director has taken them. 

In each case, the lyrics are simple and catchy with a very straightforward message. SongExpresso thinks that this is often what dance lyrics need to be – and by simple we don’t mean easy. 

So we have “Not Giving In” – whose message is: “I made some mistakes in the past but this time I’ll not give in to temptation”. A nice idea for the two brothers, one getting on in life and in contrast the other going down a fatally wrong path. 

And “Waiting All Night” – “I’ve been waiting all night [for you to tell me what you want]”. Where is one place where someone would wait all night? In a hospital of course. Match that to another true inspiring story and we are off.

Now the exciting part. Forget about the original lyrics. Watch the videos again. Do it with the sound off if it helps. Pretty emotionally charged stuff. Any ideas stirring? I bet. Just for some bonus fun, try this: video of one song and audio of the other. Start both at the first vocal (NGI: 0’44”; WAN: 0’34”). We might edit a little differently but actually they still work, giving a slightly different message. See? We have characters, back story, conflict and resolution – what more do you need to start writing?

SongExpresso is not saying this is going to work every time. If the video just tells the same story as the song, it’s going to be quite hard to squeeze out an original take. What we want is a video that is implied by the title or the song but doesn’t follow it. But like we said with Mr. Banks, when we have a starting point then things have a much better chance to flow. 

And, best of all, we can bask in the satisfaction and don’t have to tell anyone what we did. As we never get tired of saying on SongExpresso, “it’s not where you take it from – it’s where you take it to”…

SongExpresso is sure that there are a million other examples out there. What about “Love Me Again” by John Newman?  Depeche Mode’s videos were (are) always great too. Not sure whether “Wrong” or “Enjoy the Silence” are really suitable for this exercise – but what do I know? 

Have you done this? Have you got any candidates? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear.