“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.

“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.

Three Pillars of Fantastic – Part 3. Lyrics: Always Be Diving for Pearls

A post on lyric writing. But everything on these pages is about lyric writing. There are books and lives and a whole universe out there of different lyrics and different reactions. 

All we can really do is listen critically and try to absorb something into our own worlds. Most songs have something if we know where to look, that we can add to our portfolio of techniques.

Where to start? SongExpresso is going for a personal favorite, which I think few would disagree with: “Shipbuilding”. It may have been written quickly but we can feel thought, preparation, feeling and rigour. We won’t ever write this. But can we learn something that might help us tie together the circumstances that we see in something of a similar way?

The entire lyrics are at the end.

If you don’t know it please go and listen to it now – the Robert Wyatt version of course. Or Elvis’s own. Often copied, never bettered. Yes, it’s a political song but that’s not what we are interested in. Actually it’s a really human song about compromise, responsibility, and obligation.

It’s a little bit rooted in time: the Falklands “conflict” (one of the last “old school” wars without Internet or 24 news coverage – I’m sure they still did use telegrams to notify the next of kin. And the British government found out about the invasion of the Falklands by telex). This is a pre-digital time of Walkmen, VCRs. Rumours not Facebook. Heavy industry in decline, strikes, riots, unemployment. Change, class consciousness, political polarism – those days it was quite normal to hear people describe themselves as Marxists. Thirty years have changed a lot of things.

Another interesting thing – Ellis Costello later wrote a response to this song (in true SongExpresso style), from the Argentinean point of view (“Cinco Minutos con Vos”) – also an interesting song portraying normal Argentineans living under an oppressive military regime. All in all plenty of material for writing….

What makes “Shipbuilding” so great? The following things struck SongExpresso:

1. Start Strong

“Is it worth it?” This line sums up the entire song. And even better, does so using an everyday phrase. And even, even, better the melody perfectly matches the music of the phrase. Whenever I or someone else says this, I think of this song. Possible other contenders: “I Should Have Known Better” – The Beatles. “Hold on” (from “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”) – Oasis.

If got right, these types of day-to-day expressions are fertile ground for leading listeners back into the song – “well, I ask you”, “it’s just a rumour” or “with all the will in the world” work in a similar way – this is very spoken language.

2. Match tone/feeling to subject matter

It’s interesting to consider that: (i) the melody was written first and the lyrics added later – so the jazzy, downbeat atmosphere was probably already there; and (ii) it was specifically intended for Robert Wyatt to sing. So we imagine in Elvis’s mind the ghostly, beaten-down, Englishness of Robert’s voice (and I wouldn’t disregard either the evocative combination of sea-dog beard, beret and wheelchair that we later see in the music video). A direction to follow can unlock great ideas.

3. Contrasts 

  • Diving for dear life vs. diving for pearls
  • Telegram vs. picture postcard
  • The boy (wanting the bike) vs. the boy (taken to task)
  • Re-opening the shipyards vs. notifying the next of kin

In one of his first jobs, SongExpresso was described as the “however man”. Perhaps I did like juxtaposing opposing ideas a little too much for business memos. But here these are great for showing conflicts of the time: faith against reality, aspiration against realism.

4. Just clever enough

There’s “clever original” and “clever annoying”. Take the line “someone got filled in”. It sits on that dangerous borderline which could become annoying. Yes, it’s there because of the rhyme – but on the other hand is something that the people in the story could easily say. SongExpresso wonders whether and how much Elvis had to wrestle with it. Somehow I hope so. If he was in two minds then it paid off to go with the bold choice: the musicality and “vernacular” of it swings it over to the good side; it does seem right.

This also goes for “take me to task”. This is only real reference to the precise time period (the British navy/air contingent sent to the Falkland Islands was the ‘Task Force’). It’s brilliant in some ways as anyone who was around in Britain at the time will know that this means ‘war’. But as it’s both a play on words and a euphemism, Elvis relies on us to get it or the significance is lost. It’s one of those things that works perfectly locally but is potentially lost in translation to a wider audience. Take the example of “I took my Chevy to the levee”. A levee may be normal parlance in let’s say Louisiana (I’m speculating), but for non-Americans potentially meaningless. These localisms add realism to our characters but we always need to think whether our audience will understand, and how much they’ll lose if they don’t. Elvis needed to get a reference to the war in, and this is a brilliantly subtle way to do that. Just clever enough. The skill we need is to see these amber lights and then consciously decide how to handle them.

5. Verse Structure

You don’t have to have verse–pre-chorus–chorus–break etc.! We don’t know whether the melody already had this slightly off-balance progression that plays with different verse lengths, sometimes circles back on itself and repeats different sections. Maybe it did or maybe the more informal flow fitted the lyrics. Parameters can help, but can and should be disregarded if they get in the way of what feels right.

6. Show don’t tell

“Diving for dear life”. I always see the sailor/airman trying to extricate themselves from sinking wreckage. With some thought that they might have been somewhere else living a full life and not absurdly dying in the freezing South Atlantic. Of course, this is also the thought of the working man back home, making a living from whatever work available, no time for ideals or dreams. Works fantastically for both situations.

7. Is there anything we don’t like?

If this was a SongExpresso song, I would lie awake at night going over and over the line “Diving for Pearls”. It’s the right image. It’s the right rhyme. It’s the right lyric. But – with all the will in world – it really does not scan with the melody. The emphasis falls on the “ving” and not the “di”. It’s just unnatural. Some of the covers try to correct this. That destabilizes the melody and sounds equally jarring. This has been described as “sublime phrasing … of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud”. I’m going to call that pretentious rubbish and say this was just a compromise. Of course we hope that all options were explored. It’s imperfect: but the good things about it outweigh the slight problem. If we fixed it we would lose more than we gain.

 

More than ever this article makes me ask – who am I to critique. I’m a fan, yes. And grew up with this song. So I feel some pressure to do justice – this is my one shot at this. But if SongExpresso has a goal then it’s to improve the lyrics gene pool. All I can do is pick out some things that I appreciate. And maybe convince some others to listen. What do you think?

 

This is Part 3 of SongExpresso’s Three Pillars of Fantastic:
Part 1: Bring Your Own Feeling
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)

 

Shipbuilding
COSTELLO, ELVIS / LANGER, CLIVE WILLIAM
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we’ll be shipbuilding…

Well I ask you
The boy said “Dad they’re going to take me to task,
but I’ll be back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in
We will be shipbuilding…

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

Don’t bore us – with your tedious chorus

Is it possible to write a chorus using just one word? Hmmm. Is is possible to write a GOOD chorus using just one word? Double Hmmm. Probably not as easy as writing a samba using just one note… 

We know repetition can be effective for creating a hook. Repetition = memorable, ey, Jude? And it can be effective at any time for cementing an idea. Yes, a couple of times. Not necessarily consecutively. But three, four, potato, more? Can we pull it off?

But let’s always consider why we would want to pull it off: do we have good artistic reasons, or could it be … (speaking very quietly) that we just don’t have any better idea?

Remember, if you go this way, then you are giving up the opportunity of getting the listeners’ attention with an interesting lyric. Lyrics are – naturally – one of SongExpresso’s 3 pillars of fantastic. If you minimise them, then you’d better be sure that the other two pillars – Melody and Feeling – are rock solid and super-interesting.

Feeling is feeling and is a combination of various things – but definitely within the composer’s power and not just a question of style, instrumentation or performance. If it feels good to you then probably it is good. All we are saying is do it consciously: Does it work in real life? Is there any alternative? Can we vary it next time? Where we don’t have lyrical interest then for sure we need melodic interest, direction and variety.

Warning: unfair comparison ahead!

1. Let’s start with “Sing” (Travis)

Here’s the operative part:

But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing
For the love you bring
Won’t mean a thing
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing

It’s simple but definitely melodic enough to hold our interest. Each “sing” is a litle different so it doesn’t really sound repetitive and still enjoys all the advantages of memorabiliy. On “thing” we are held for a while on the 2nd before satisfyingly being brought back to the root. Taking the song as a whole we have a very cute feeling and tempo, and a wide melodic range. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 8!

2. Moving on to “Come On” (The Hives)

We don’t actually need to extract the operative part as in this one minute song the entire lyrics are:

(One! Two! One, two, one, two, three!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on…
Everybody come on! (repeat from top)

It’s a fun song. A rare thing, a song with more chords than words! (Though is it really a song? Or just a riff? Or a chorus? Or a chant?) In any event, the energetic feeling and building instrumental intensity are parts of the mix. The other is the variation, including the call and response. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: a cheeky 7! 

3. Finally, what about “Inhaler” by Miles Kane?

it’s a short song too, so here’s the entire thing: 

I’ve been looking forward to lifting up the veil
Yes is the answer, you know that for sure
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Cold is the shoulder, you’ll give me for sure
Dance with your hips, and grind on the floor
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler etc.

It’s a riffy song – in fact the riff is the main entertainment. That’s fine – the Feeling is good. Melody – in the verse, it matches the riff nicely and gets us moving. We really like the “lifting up the veil” lyric, suggestive and original. “Night time is the right time” is a bit of a cliche but in tune with the “up for it” theme. “Cold is the shoulder” is quite nice too. Some great lyrical potential going on here.

But for SongExpresso, when we get to the chorus it loses its way a bit. The feeling seems a bit flat; the melody lacks interest; and the lyrics seem like a missed opportunity. And the inhaler idea is actually great – it suggests breathlessness, wanting to absorb the night, drinks disappearing, as well as the potential for some other substances… It’s cool – perhaps envisaged as an anthem – simple to remember and sing at festivals. But where does it really go? Couldn’t we have something a bit more evocative? The above ideas could already give us a start…

Perhaps another unfair comparison – think about “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga – another nightclub song but, for SongExpresso’s taste, scores higher for interesting lyrical content and for combining all three pillars.

SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 5.5!

So what’s our conclusion? There is a not altogether unfounded rumour that – in pop at least – lyrics may be dispensable. But we say “always be interesting”. And the lyrics are a major opportunity for doing that. So the one word chorus is to be applied sparingly and not as a first resort. If we have looked at the alternatives and are still really taken with the idea, then the feeling, melody, variation and direction had better be good.

What are your favourite minimal lyrics? Including lalalas. Perhaps lalalas deserve their own post, what do you reckon, Jude?

“Do I wanna know?” – rhyme grit – and no blandarctica

Billy Joel is not Alex Turner. For SongExpresso, Bily is a master of natural sounding rhyme. But for SongExpresso, the best Arctic Monkey’s lyrics are like raps – layering on rhyme and sounds without compromise to meaning. No “rhyme crime” here (“rhyme grit”, anyone?). 

As readers will by now have realised, SongExpresso is universally unimpressed by contrived or forced rhymes; but what we have in “Do I wanna know” is something more sophisticated than rhyming couplets. It’s wordplay with half-rhymes, internal rhymes, and eclectic but never stilted sounding vocabulary. The rhymes keep coming, maybe 10 obvious ones to a verse, not counting the ones we feel but don’t see, that season and spice the remainder of the lyrics.

This is really structured and disciplined – we might try to emulate by sitting with the rhyming dictionary open and going for a rhyme at the end of every line. Could be a good exercise but almost inevitably boring.

So let’s take a moment:

  • to feel the “organic-ness” – I don’t believe there’s a dictionary that would give you all the rhymes here (verse 1: the “ee” sounds – verse 2: the “uh” sounds). This comes from feeling – and perspiration.
  • to chase the rhyme – it seems to start at the end and wander backwards into the middle or even near to the beginning of the line. That reminds us of some (modern) rap techniques – the rhymes seem to be attracted together and to chase one after the other. It creates an accelerating and decelerating flow – more natural, more rhythmically varied and attention-keeping.
  • to enjoy the Englishness – “summat”, “settee”, “you’ve ‘ad a few” – of course this wouldn’t be Arctic Monkeys if the language was some kind of mid-Atlantic, estuary, blandarctica. This takes some self-assurance to pull off – but in reality they always had it and haven’t changed much since album 1. For the rest of us, daring to use details like this can help us inject a pinch of credibility, sincerity and personality. Of course, if trying to write from the point of view of a character from a culture that isn’t yours, best get these right.
  • to notice how the flow of the lyrics matches the beat – there are no scanning issues here. This depends to an extent on Alex’s delivery, and using short words helps – but the emphases fall all in the right places. The mix of shorter and longer phrases also makes for a more spoken feel and avoids dull symmetry.

Let’s not try to be rappers if we aren’t. (If you do want to, please try first in the safety of your own home and not on 8 Mile Road.) And I don’t think we really need more pop songs with rap breaks. But we can try some of the techniques to add interest and variation to the lyrics and rhyming patterns of a rock or any other style of song. What other non-hip-hop songs use elements from or could be raps? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your favorites.

 

DO I WANNA KNOW?

Have you got colour in your cheeks?

Do you ever get the fear that you can’t shift the type that sticks around like something in your teeth?

Are there some aces up your sleeve?

Have you no idea that you’re in deep?

I dreamt about you nearly every night this week

How many secrets can you keep?

Cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat

Until I fall asleep

Spilling drinks on my settee

 

Do I wanna know

if this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

 

So have you got the guts?

Been wondering if you’re heart’s still open

And if so I wanna know what time it shuts

Simmer down and pucker up

I’m sorry to interrupt

It’s just I’m constantly on the cusp

Of trying to kiss you

I don’t know if you feel the same as I do

But we could be together if you wanted to

 

Do I wanna know

If this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

Too busy being yours to fall

Ever thought of calling darling?

Do you want me crawling back to you? 

 

Songwriters: Turner, Alex

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

http://www.arcticmonkeys.com/song.php?id=136

 

“Cornerstone” – Benjamin Clementine – don’t try this at home (home, home, home, home)

SongExpresso challenges you to listen to Benjamin Clementine and not to have an opinion. Or remember something from what you just heard. No-one else we know does anything like this (and really they shouldn’t try). A jumble of diverse accelerations, dynamics, melodies and feelings? No, a feast. 

We can speculate where this comes from (possibly something to do with classical influences or “French” emphasis on lyrical content? – ChansonExpress remains to be convinced but will investigate) – possibly also partly being at the first album stage (that’s when writers have the greatest amount of material and freedom to do things their way). Certainly, there is enormous freedom in the lyrics and style, and we’re left with the impression that although we don’t necessarily know what’s coming next, to the writer and eventually to us it just feels right. And is actually more structured than we might assume.

So, let’s dive in:

“Cornerstone”, Benjamin Clementine

I am alone in a box of stone

Hold it right there – “box” is such a pejorative word – really objective and stark; packaging, almost. It’s not even a shell. Box of stone – can only be two things, a house or a coffin. Which is it?

When all is said and done

As the wind blows to the east from the west

Unto this bed, my tears have their solemn rest

We still don’t know whether it’s a house or a coffin – the “solemn rest” certainly leaves an infusion of death in the air. We may have different opinions depending on the rest of the song and how we see it, and perhaps that’s exactly right: it doesn’t really matter – he’s come to (or near to) the end of his life and his house is his coffin; if not dead then he is as good as dead… Whether looking back from the grave, or living with nothing to look forward to, there’s no hope.

For I am lonely, alone in a box of stone

They claim to love me, but they’re all lying

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

There’s lots of emotion just in this segment: I am lonely – either old at the end of my life and no-one comes around, or past the end of my life and just forgotten. Alone in a box of my own – it’s just a thing, maybe worked all my life to buy this house and it’s turned out meaningless because it’s empty (or I just ended up in a coffin anyway). Any that’s where I now belong – no hope, no way out.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

This might seem like a throwaway line – but the repetition is really effective in emptying the word of any romance or tenderness – like this it’s just a word. The character repeats it, more in resignation than despair (compare this with the anger of “they’re all lying”). We’re left with a feeling of hopelessness and fatalism.

It wasn’t easy getting used to this

I used to scream

It’s not true, that it’s only when the door is locked

That nobody enters

Cos mine has been open till your demise

But none had come, well who am I

What have i done wrong?

This part feels more like the despair of being left alone at the end of life (partially by death – whose demise? his last so-called friend? we don’t know – but in general by apathy and disinterest), followed by the resignation. “I used to scream” says it all. But he got used to it. No hope. Slam. 

Also, we like the way that the “it’s only when the door is locked” lines don’t quite scan and come out half-spoken: we understand that this is what he really feels so he needs to express it, without compromise, and breaking the rhythm like this makes it unmissable. SongExpresso is reminded of Billy Joel’s non-rhymes.

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of my own

They claim to be near me but they were all lying, it’s not true

I’ve been lonely, alone in a box of stone

This is the place I now belong

We’ve had all this before – but this is more so – the lines “they were all lying, it’s not true” are an angry statement of fact. This is how it is, without nuance or exception.

It’s my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

Friends, I have met

Lovers have slept and wept

Promises to stay have never been kept

This bare truth of which most won’t share

I hope you share, I hope you share

What about this part? It’s almost as if the lies and the abandonment are worse than never having had any human contact at all. And “most won’t share” – because we’re all selfish. Except, you dear listener, might you understand and be good to someone like me? He hopes not for himself but for others.

Cos I’ve been lonely

Alone in a box of my own

They claim to love me and be near me

But they are all lying

I have been lonely, alone in a box of my own

And this is the place I now belong

Its my home, home, home, home, home, home, home, home

The ending is a bit breathless… not of desperation, but final breaths?

So, although this may not be our style, or topic, and we normally wouldn’t think of packing a song so full of such varied ingredients, what can we take away and use?

  • consistency: while the song has its rhythmic ebbs and flows, the lyrics consistently support and return to the feeling of hopelessness. As well expressed in this article, don’t ever break the mood, always try to have everything keep building it up.
  • breaking the rhythm: SongExpresso finds the “it’s not true”, “they’re all lying” interjections really effective – they break out from established rhythm and verge on being a bit “shouty”. This makes the anger palpable and impossible to ignore. Can we try this? Can we take a key line that we don’t want the listener to forget and just speak or shout it? A technique not to be overused, for sure. What about the other way round? A metal song with a tender interlude in which we really hear the words before going back to full volume? Why not? If what’s in the break is important, then giving it its own oasis can make it stand out from the sand.
  • repetition: “home, home, home” – we may not have much opportunity to ever reproduce this. But here it is super-effective, because it unloads the word of all symbolism or romance. So think of a symbolic object – wedding ring, feather, pyramid, diploma, autograph, pet… repeat ten times and the symbolism falls away – it just becomes a thing, just a word.
  • reduction: “box” is the reduction to its lowest form of the home or house (or coffin). A perfect technique for the theme of this song – material things are meaningless and powerless to affect the writer’s hopelessness. So maybe we might also try this: compare: clothes vs. cloth; banknotes vs. paper; wine cellar vs. hole full of glass. The thesaurus doesn’t necessarily get us here – it’s really a type of metaphor, or some other figure of speech. (SongExpresso refuses to go onto Wikipedia in order to find the Greek word for this and pretend that we use these terms every day…) This one seems to work only in a disdainful, reductive way: SongExpresso doesn’t really see much mileage in calling paper “potential banknotes”. Though we’re intrigued by the idea of “glass aspiring to be a wine bottle”… Got any good examples to share (of either)?