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Blog - Stolen Scraps of a Great Feast of Language 

April 02, 2017

I was always a “lyrics first” person when it came to listening to songs.  I’ve always been inclined towards English Lit and poetry and am endlessly curious about why and how certain songs work and/or don’t work.  As will likely become obvious, I spend probably far more time than a person should in the minutiae of individual lines and structures trying to decode the ways lyrics can direct the listener and deliver meaning.   (In this way I am the exact opposite of Sean, who doesn’t really hear lyrics at all, but experiences vocals primarily via the melodies.)


So here’s some thoughts I’ve had about lyric work that I like.



Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2

Smile - Pearl Jam

Life Goes On / Hit ‘Em Up - 2Pac

I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash

Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers


1.  Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2


“Some Days Are Better Than Others” is a strange little song on an album full of strange little songs.  The Zootopia album was recorded during U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1993, and most of the tracks have a fun, novelty, B-side quality to them.  (With the exception of “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” which I think is one of the best songs in U2’s catalog).


Pretty much all of “Some Days Are Better Than Others” is a series of couplets with each line having a “Some day you’re this, some day you’re that” internal structure.  My favorite line is in the second verse:


Some days you're quick, but most days you're speedy

Some days you use more force than is necessary.


The second line of the couplet is unbalanced; the natural conclusion to the segment, to preserve the couplet rhyme and meter set up by the first line should be:  "Some days you use more force than is needed."


The use of the word “necessary” rather than “needed” is rather clever.  Bono has used more syllables than he needed to finish a line that is about doing exactly that.  Whether it’s overly cute or the perfect amount of clever depends on your taste, but I’ve always found it to be on the right side of the line.




2.  Smile - Pearl Jam


One of my favorite Pearl Jam songs is also one of the simplest.  


Don’t it make you smile?

Don’t it make you smile?

When the sun don’t shine (it don’t shine at all)

Don’t it make you smile?


I miss you already

I miss you always

I miss you already

I miss you all day


That’s basically the entire song, with the first four lines being the verse, and the second four being the chorus.  It’s a case of a simple sentiment presented very simply.   The song structure is Verse Verse Chorus Chorus, with the second verse being sung an octave higher than the first.  The song is a rising crescendo of volume and intensity, and since the lyrics don’t change the effect is achieved purely through the delivery of the vocals and the instrumental arrangement.


The structure itself contributes to the theme of the song.  Since it proceeds lyrically in one direction, from verse to chorus without a return to the lower intensity verse after the first chorus, it gives a sense of being unresolved.  There’s an escalation without a release, and a sense of trailing off.   There’s no ending or return to the past for the narrator, who is resigned to missing a lost person indefinitely, and the song is set up to leave the listener in the same state.  


Descriptively / semantically the song is sufficiently vague as to allow the listener to determine what sort of relationship the narrator is singing about.  The one variation in the second chorus is the changing the third line to the cryptic:


Three crooked hearts swirl all around her


I suppose that’s a hint of author’s intent, but it isn’t much of one.  “Smile” is a case study in the ways a lyrical song can direct the listener to an area of meaning without being explicit, and suggest an atmosphere just through its structure.




3.  Life Goes On / Hit Em Up by 2Pac


“Life Goes On” is a song that is run through with nostalgia.   It’s a song that not only reminisces about a friend that’s passed on, but also resonates with the sense of life’s fleetingness and fragility.  One of my favorite passages:


“Eyes blurry

Saying goodbye at the cemetery

Though memories fade

I got your name tatted on my arm

So we both ball till my dying days”


I think the specificity and personal touch here is a great piece of writing in the pure description sense, but additionally the line “Though memories fade” has a larger poignant effect.  No matter how important his friend is to him, he knows time will still erode all that specificity of memory.   Shakur here is getting at the same idea that resonates so strongly in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time:”


“For in this world where everything wears out, where everything perishes, there is one thing that collapses and is more completely destroyed than anything else, and leaves fewer traces than beauty itself: and that is grief.”


The tattoo honoring his friend is more permanent than his memory, but even that attempt at a permanent memorial will die with him.  As Shakur returns to this again in the song’s outro:


“Last year we poured out liquor for you

This year, n****, life goes on.”


On 2Pac’s Greatest Hits album, “Life Goes On” is immediately followed by “Hit ‘Em Up,” a song that in a lot of ways is the exact opposite.  Where “Life Goes On” is bittersweet and almost tender at times, “Hit ‘Em Up” is a crescendo of rising fury and hatred.


It lacks the lyrical specificity of “Life Goes On,” but has a distinct emotional specificity: it was written in response to Shakur getting shot five times during a robbery in 1994.  If there’s any posing or artifice in what he was feeling, it doesn’t show.  The delivery is vitriolic, venomous, and authentic.  


Grab your glocks when you see 2Pac

Call the cops when you see 2Pac,

Who shot me but you punks didn’t finish 

Now you’re ‘bout to feel the wrath of a menace

N**** I hit ‘em up


It certainly isn’t a subtle song, but the ferocious earnestness of the delivery elevates the material past something so prosaic as merely insulting a rival.  Shakur is out for blood. 


It's like a sherm high

N****s think they learned to fly

But they burn, motherfucker, you deserve to die


(Side note:  I don’t think I’m reaching when I think I see in the above line a reference to Icarus, the kid whose hubris led him to fly too close to the sun.  Shakur went to Baltimore School for the Arts and studied poetry, jazz, and Shakespeare.)  


The song is all mounting anger with no denouement.  In its long outro, Shakur is no longer rapping.  He’s off the beat, switching to prose from verse, as it were.  It’s as if he’s barely holding himself together and his delivery approaches a ranting fury:


All of y'all motherf***ers, f*** you; die slow, motherf***er

My .44 makes sure all y'all kids don't grow!


The song to me is not so much badass, as disconcerting and uncomfortable and therein lies its power and its greatness. 





4.  I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash


This song is actually a cover of Sting from his Mercury Falling album.  Personally, I find the Johnny Cash version more compelling.  Admittedly, I heard the Johnny Cash version first but I think Cash’s more stripped down arrangement and more mournful near-spoken delivery serves the phenomenal lyrics better.  The Sting version, to my ear, feels a little over arranged for the subject matter.   


Stripping a song down, particularly a song that has a relatively simple structure and melody really drives the attention to the lyrical content.   This song has a very narrative drive and doesn’t even have much of a chorus hook.  The absence of a chorus is another thing that drives listeners to the lyrics.


The song is a first person story of a man who accidentally shoots and kills someone, his subsequent trial, and his awaiting of the gallows.


Most of the song is written fairly passively, with things happening to the narrator.  

“My brother’s rifle went off in my hand” and “And then it came to me just what I had done.”  All the passive voice gives the impression that, at the beginning, the narrator hasn’t quite accepted his responsibility for the tragedy.  “The gun just went off” rather then “I pulled the trigger.”


This passivity changes in the courthouse at the emotional climax of the song where the narrator says, in active voice the entire time:


I felt the power of death over life

I orphaned his children

I widowed his wife

I begged their forgiveness

I wish I was dead

I hung my head


There’s nothing melodramatic in these lyrics and reading them on the page they almost sound matter of fact.  Cash’s delivery is not maudlin or particularly emotive, either.  But the verbs “orphaned” and “widowed” are very powerful choices here and the simple directness of the statements deliver a hammer strike to the listener and drive home the utter finality and terrible permanence of the damage the narrator has inflicted. 


The ending verses directly parallel the song’s opening, with the narrator, now awaiting the gallows, seeing a lone rider crossing the plain.


And he'd come to fetch me

To see what they'd done

And we'd ride together

To kingdom come

I prayed for god's mercy

For soon I'd be dead

I hung my head

I hung my head





5. Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers


This song is written from an interesting perspective.  The narrator is remembering and describing events that happened long ago, which allows for a kind of reversal of dramatic irony where the listener knows less about the significance of the events than the narrator does.   The song is explicit about this, in the first verse saying


I wonder what you came to be


This is a similar narrative framework used to great effect in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectation” and allows the narrator to drop omens into the narrative that the character that is experiencing the actions in the past doesn’t recognize.  From chapter 11 of the book, where a young Pip is talking to the girl he will torment himself over:


“Because I’ll never cry for you again,” said I. Which was, I suppose, as false a declaration as ever was made; for I was inwardly crying for her then, and I know what I know of the pain she cost me afterwards.


The recollection allows for narrative distance from what will be earth shaking events for the character and allows equivalence between the narrator’s comments on the actions and the actions themselves.   We can tell from the asides that something is going to go horribly wrong here, but for now we’re left in suspense as to how it will unfold.  


In the song, the narrator in the present knows what these events will eventually cost him, but the distance allows him to almost casually drop the song’s main recurrent image of the girl as an atomic blast on his life without having to wade in the specifics of what occurred. 


When I look back on those neon lights

The leather seats, the passage rite

I feel the heat, I see the light

Miss Atomic Bomb


The past already happened and can’t be changed now, only recalled.   The chorus tag line of “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” isn’t a threat.  It’s simply what is going to happen.


There’s so many well chosen lyrics in this song that it could probably support an entire blog post by itself, but one of the standouts to me is near the end.  It’s a part where the music quiets and becomes almost reflective.  The narrator is firmly in his present at the beginning, though the rising emotion of the passage starts to blur the line between past pain and current acceptance once the atomic bomb reference shows up again:


The dust cloud has settled, and my eyes are clear

But sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear

Miss Atomic Bomb

I'm standing here, sweat on my skin

And this love that I've cradled is wearing thin

But I'm standing here and you're too late

Your shock-wave whisper has sealed your fate


What’s done is done.  There’s nothing to fix now, sometimes we go so far afield from who we were that we can’t go back again.   To return to Great Expectations, this is the last line of the book as it originally ended*, after many years after the events of the novel Pip runs into Estella in London.  


I was very glad afterwards, to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be. 


*Dickens changed the ending after a friend reviewed it to make it more of a happy ending for Pip and Estella; personally I think the original ending is better, more powerful, and more true to the perspective running through the book.




Final thought on lyrics:  Be careful about looking lyrics up online.  Here’s what has listed for “All Along the Watchtower.”


Businessmen - they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None will level on the line

Nobody of it is worth*.


Um.... what?  Its sort of looks like the kind of thing that would be transcribed from the song phonetically by someone who only speaks Bulgarian.   Or maybe Sean.



*Should be this:


Businessmen they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line

Know what any of it is worth.

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