Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lessons in subtlety

As we all often do around here, I've been thinking about song lyrics again this week. The morning radio hacks have gotten a little too much for my husband and I on our 40 minute commute to work, so we've gone back to putting on the iPod and listening to all our old favourites.

This time, what's been occurring to me is how much of a punch a song has to pack in a very, very low number of words. Same as poetry, though I haven't listened to much of that in the car lately.

And in that short number of words, there are really only two approaches you can take to maximise the emotional impact- you can either be very direct, or very subtle.

I've been thinking about both this week, and I thought I'd give a few examples of song lyrics that I think tell a story very well in a few words. These are, to me, so good that I'm not going to say another word myself- I'll just let you read 'em, and I'm sure that like me, you'll finish five or six lines knowing all about that person or situation (or both) almost as well as if you'd read a story about them.

So, while you're not expected to be this brief in fiction, I think it's a great demonstration of how much you can achieve in a short space- imagine how powerful your story would be if you applied this kind of vivid characterisation throughout your novel.

The first one is my favourite- in just three lines, you get a whole world of information. The whole song is brilliant- it's about Kurt Cobain, apparently.

Foo Fighters- Friend of a Friend

He thinks he drinks too much
'Cause when he tells his two best friends, "I think I drink too much."
No-one speaks. No-one speaks.

The Killers- Mr. Brightside

Now I'm falling asleep
And she's calling a cab
While he's having a smoke
And she's taking a drag
Now they're going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it's all in my head
But she's touching his
Chest now, he takes off her dress now
Let me go.
I just can't look, it's killing me.

Crowded House- Distant Sun

Still so young to travel so far
Old enough to know who you are
Wise enough to carry the scars
Without any blame
There's no-one to blame

Sarah McLachlan- Building a Mystery

You live in a church
Where you sleep with voodoo dolls
And you won't give up the search
For the ghosts in the halls
You wear sandals in the snow
And a smile that won't wash away
Can you look out the window
Without your shadow getting in the way?

Beth Orton- Stolen Car

You walked into my house last night
I couldn't help but notice
A light that was long gone still burning strong.
You were sitting
Your fingers like fuses
Your eyes were cinnamon.

Any favourite stories in songs you'd like to share?


  1. Heather Nova - Walk this world - Dark, sultry and crunchy!

    And I'm sucked in by the wonder and I'm f**ked up by the lies
    And I dig a hole to lie in and I build some wings to fly
    And I think that I could love you 'cause you know how to be free
    I want you to come walk this world with me

    With the light in our eyes it's hard to see
    Holding on and on 'til we believe
    With the light in our eyes it's hard to see
    I'm not touched but I'm aching to be
    I want you to come, I want you to come
    I want you to come walk this world with me

  2. Claire, I've often thought about how compact and precise song lyrics must be in order to get that song done in three minutes of air time, and marveled at the talent that goes into producing them. But I do think the music does a lot of the story telling, too.

    On a bit of a silly note, these lyrics are to a song the DH and I reckon could've been written about us (g) - "You and Me Song" by the Wannadies, from the sound track to Baz Luhrmann's ROMEO + JULIET:

    Always when we fight
    I try to make you laugh
    Til everything's forgotten
    I know you hate that

    ba ba da da ba ba ba ba (2x)

    Always when we fight
    I kiss you once or twice
    And everything's forgotten
    I know you hate that

    I love you Sunday song
    The week's not yet begun
    And everything is quiet
    And it's always...

    You and me always, and forever
    You and me always, and forever
    ba ba ba ba da ba, it was always
    You and me always..

    You tell me I'm a real man
    and try to look impressed
    Not very convincing
    But you know I love it

    Now we watch TV
    Til we fall asleep
    Not very exciting
    But it's you and...

    Me and we'll always be together
    You and me always, and forever
    ba ba ba ba da ba, it was always...
    You and me always, and forever
    You and me always, and forever

    The clip's here;

  3. Claire --love all those lyrics. And you're right, well placed words can mean everything. I'm often envious of those who do it well.

    I said this in an earlier post but I've always loved Morriessy's lyrics. That man has a way with words and using them to the fullest impact. Such as:

    I didn't realize you wrote poetry.
    I didn't realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry,
    Mr. Shankley. >:-D

    Or -very apropos to writers...

    You say: "ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn"
    and you claim these words as your own
    but I've read well, and I've heard them said
    a hundred times, maybe less, maybe more

    If you must write prose and poems
    the words you use should be your own
    don't plagiarise or take "on loans"
    there's always someone, somewhere
    with a big nose, who knows
    and who trips you up and laughs
    when you fall

    As for love and lyrics.. I was never into Elton John (my mother was, lol) so I really hear cutie pie Ewan Mcgregor singing this, but I love these lyrics.

    I hope you don't mind that I put down in words
    How wonderful life is now you're in the world.


  4. Rachel -- sniffle. How sweet is that. :) You guys are so cute.

  5. Oooh, Cemetry Gates! I love that song. Also, if I hadn't forgotten my camera cable at work, I was going to put CH doing Distant Sun live, last night, directly in front of me, but... them's the breaks. They played Message to My Girl, which also is a complete story in itself.
    Springsteen songs are usually mini stories in themselves, some depressing (The River), some uplifting even though they're depressing (Promised Land).
    One of my other favourite bands for lyrics is The Divine Comedy, especially the Promenade album. Here's one of the songs: Going Downhill Fast