I think every great song has some narrative in it. It could be the mention of the name of the city or a girl or the weather. Some concrete detail that puts you in a place and time. Otherwise it’s all abstract emotion, feelings. Nothing to cling to. At the same time, a story with no emotion, no description of feeling is boring. You’ve got to find that perfect balance and when you do, it’s very powerful. It’s also sort of impossible to know when you’ve got it right. The narrative of a song should be just the right distance from the singer. Not precisely who they are, but not too far either.
Tom Waits' Goin Out West is a story about a gnarly guy who is headed to Hollywood to live the dream of an actor. But he never really says that outright. He shows the guys environment, what he looks like, what’s going on for him, what he’s thinking, but he doesn’t explain. Such an achievement. Our song We Used To Vacation; it is a story about an alcoholic father, but it doesn’t come out and say it. You have to take the details as a whole to get that. I had one friend tell me he thought that song was too heavy handed. I always wonder if that’s true, but I know it’s many of our fans favorite song because of how directly they relate to it.
I get inspired to write by the combination of a real life situation with the disguise or dressing up of poetry. Certain songs can be too on the nose; too much real life, not enough poetry. Our song Sensitive Kid was that way for me. We don’t really play it much because deep down there is not much mystery there, it’s just me undressed. Another song, like Loner Phase is the opposite problem; too much abstract, not enough narrative. It’s a song about intimate struggles of friendship, but I didn’t include enough concrete detail for that story came across successfully. What can you do? You do your best, you write the songs and you finish them, and they are out of your hands forever. Hopefully you get better with experience.
Religious and spiritual imagery in narrative writing is especially powerful to me. Sin, redemption, faith, all that old fashioned stuff. Some people may not see these as universal themes, but no matter what you bring to it, all great expression comes back to that indescribable longing for justice and peace and connection that is unfulfilled. It’s the reason Help Me Rhonda can never touch you like Hallelujah can. You can have never been to church, but you have seen The Godfather and you get it.
Most artists I admire lean on this style. Nina Simone Sinnerman, Kanye West’s whole persona of Yeezus, Depeche Mode’s Songs Of Faith and Devotion, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible... the list goes on.
Our song St John is that type of narrative, inspired less by experience, than by a traditional bluesy style storytelling. When our album was reviewed by Pitchfork, many people wanted to know if this song had some simple, explicit Christian message. I still get a kick out of that. But to view any art through that lens of having some agenda undercuts the poetry and power of the larger narrative. Did anyone think that Macca had some agenda in Eleanor Rigby when lonely Father Mckenzie “picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been?” I’m sure somebody did. But it’s not the way to song is intended to be felt.
When Paul Simon sang “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland,” he hits a home run. He goes to the core of religious and spiritual songwriting and keeps it totally universal. There is no agenda other than to show a true picture; without explanation, without judgment, to describe a moment in time. That is powerful. Nathan Willett @coldwarkids
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