Netflix has a new series called “Song Exploder”. Each episode takes a famous song and looks at how it was made, recorded, the inspiration behind it. I have watched one episode so far, the song in the spotlight was “Losing My Religion” by REM. I found it fascinating, particularly because the members of REM are such engaging and willing participants in the analysis of the song , none more so than Michael Stipe . It reminded me what a great and idiosyncratic lyricist Michael Stipe is. I won’t quote the whole lyric (I have attached a video which syncs the lyric with the song), but here’s the second verse:
“That’s me in the corner That’s me in the spotlight Losing my religion Trying to keep up with you And I don’t know if I can do it Oh no, I’ve said too much I haven’t said enough”
What struck me, on seeing this, was how each line emerges from the page like planes in a cubist painting; each line views the subject from a different angle.
Consider this, the last verse, that play between “failed” and “flailing”, the conclusion “Now I’ve said too much”. Throughout the song, he doesn’t rhyme once, he just keeps throwing out those viewpoints, those angles, those curves: pretty much a perfect lyric.
“Consider this Consider this The hint of the century Consider this The slip that brought me To my knees failed What if all these fantasies Come flailing around Now I’ve said too much”
Regular visitors to this blog will recognise the second poem as a triple slimverse. Only the second time this verse form has appeared outside this blog….is that momentum I feel?
I’m never totally sure about publishing song lyrics as they sometimes seem a bit thin on the page without melody and music, but I hope this one stands up! You can check out a sample of the recorded version here.
I was sitting down one night over a few drinks with my good friend, John Mitchell, talking about music, poetry and soccer when the subject of song lyrics and song writing came up. At that point in the evening where the power of drink makes every idea seem like a good one, John suggested that we should write a song together. John is a successful professional musician and I am a chemical engineer and occasionally published poet, so I have to admit I felt a bit out of my league, but I agreed anyway!
Over the next few days, I pulled out some poems I had hanging around but none of them really fitted the bill given that they were basically non rhyming free verse. I had a phrase, though, – “sitting in this motel room/ I could be sitting anywhere”- and I started to develop a character and story around that phrase. The final lyric eventually became the song, “Emma Jean”, which you can take a listen to below. It’s a long way from words on paper to a finished song, and that’s where John’s talent as a singer, song writer, composer, musician and arranger took over (in other words, John did the heavy lifting!). Here’s the song, please, please use headphones to listen rather than just your computer’s speakers, the song is mixed with headphones in mind.
In the end John and I collaborated on 5 songs which, together with 2 songs written by John alone, we have put together on an album.
Click here to preview the whole album, and if you like the songs, buy one, buy them all!! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)
A few notes about the song “Emma Jean”, it was obvious from the start that this would be a country song, it’s about divorce, separation, there’s a child involved, and what could be more country than that? But I wanted to avoid formula, so the story took a twist, at the end, that perhaps disqualifies it as a mainstream modern country song, but hey, never pander! Initially, the song didn’t have the middle two verses, being more accustomed to writing poetry where my rule is “say what you have to say with as few words as possible”, I thought I had said enough. But songs need verses and John told me to flesh it out a bit, so I came up with the lines “Who know why love goes wrong/ It’s not written anywhere” and took it from there. John was right of course, the extra verses created context. Now…over to John!
Writing lyrics for me, is about as easy as giving birth, not that I have experience of both. My lyrics are either incredibly self indulgent or incredibly preachy, or a bit of both. The ability to paint pictures with words is truly an amazing gift and I appreciate that gift in others. My favourite lyricists tell stories and take us to another place and time or share experiences through someone else’s eyes. When I first read Jim’s poem, Emma Jean, I could see that motel room and I could smell the mixture of stale beer and carpet cleaner that is the telltale odour of cheap motels. I recognise it from years on the road with bands.
In the case of “Emma Jean”, the music came quickly. First, it had to be in a minor key, as the story was fairly dark and the background music needed to be sparse with minimal instruments so as not to interfere with the lyrics – just guitar, a little bass, and a touch of southern slide. The vocal tries to express how Emma Jean’s dad would feel in that hotel room – loneliness with a good helping of bitterness. I then wanted to use different instruments to accent the chorus, so I added accordion and trombone and orchestral cymbals. The acoustic guitar( a Larrivee D-50) and vocal are all real, but all the other sounds are digital samples. I recorded it all on my laptop using the program, Logic, and mixed the tunes for headphones to hear the full spectrum of instruments.
As Jim noted above, please use headphones to listen to the sample track above or plug into a good set of speakers.
In our next post, John and I will discuss another track on the album.
The great Paul Simon once said: “I’d rather be a llama than a whale”. Ok, maybe he didn’t but perhaps he should have. Anyway, this is not about rhymin’ Simon, this is about rhymin’ Diamond who once said”
I am, I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
Implying that, in a room containing inanimate objects, the object most likely to reply would be a chair. But all smart ass carping aside, that chair is important, not just because it rhymes with “there”. The chair suggests that Neil is in a room, and there is only one chair (“the chair”), so Neil is most likely lying on a bed and of course he is alone, so alone that he has resorted to talking to the furniture. Without the chair, he could be anywhere, it becomes the focus of his existential crisis. This is a “pop song”, one has to grab the attention of the audience or they are gone and it has to look easy and that’s hard and he does it through that one detail, the chair.
It has to be said that Neil is perhaps not at the same level as Paul Simon when it comes to poetic, sophisticated lyrics, but he has his moments. Take the first verse of “ Cracklin’ Rosie”:
“Aw, Cracklin’ Rosie, get on board
We’re gonna ride
Till there ain’t no more to go
Taking it slow
And Lord, don’t you know
We’ll have me a time with a poor man’s lady”
There’s that internal rhyme happening – board, more, Lord, poor -and all those ‘O’s’, fifteen in total! And the assonance in the chorus of
You’re a store-bought woman”
It goes a bit downhill after that – “you make me sing like a guitar hummin’” – hummin’ and woman – ouch!
But, for my money, Neil’s finest moment when it comes to writing lyrics is in “Sweet Caroline”. The song, admittedly, is not without some absolute groaners:
“Where it began,
I can’t begin to knowin’”
And that’s the first two lines.
Even the chorus, which contains that finest moment is a syntactical nightmare:
Good times never seemed so good
I’ve been inclined,
To believe they never would
Oh, no, no
I have wrestled with this for some time and the best I can come up with is this: ”I’ve been inclined to believe that good times never would never seem so good”. Think about that too long and I guarantee that steam will come out of your ears. But it doesn’t matter, because all that matters is that rhyme between “Sweet Caroline” and “I’ve been inclined”. He could have gone for “fine”, “wine”, “mine” etc but there is something about “inclined” that is so unexpected, so colloquial, so conversational. It surprises every time you hear it. And of course, the acid test of any chorus is how well it does in a pub or bar late in the evening and everyone is a little hammered and some skinny guy on acoustic guitar hauls out “Sweet Caroline” and everyone is just waiting to belt out that chorus and I guarantee you that the volume will perceptibly increase when they reach that line and everyone takes just a little credit for recognizing just how clever it is.
Last week there was a Simon Pegg retrospective at our local cinema and Slim invited me back to his one bedroom apartment after we watched an early showing of “Shawn of the Dead”. Slim had prepared dinner and by that I mean he had peeled back the tin foil edge of a take-out carton of butter chicken, removed the cardboard lid, and handed me a plastic fork and a can of Old Style lager. He then lapsed into one of his silences.
I found myself noticing the beads of condensation on the clear plastic lid of the steamed rice container. The rice was long past fluffy. The evening stretched before me like a Sunday in Ottawa. My only recourse was to ask Slim an irritating question.
“So, Slim”, I said, “who do you think is the better poet, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?”
Slim’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Bob Dylan’s not a poet”, he snapped,“ he’s a poetic songwriter”.
“And Leonard Cohen is…..?”
“Leonard Cohen is a poet who writes songs”.
“Ok then, what’s your favorite Bob Dylan line, verse, whatever”
“I can only think of the bad ones”
“So what’s the worst Bob Dylan line ever?”
Slim blinked once like he was accessing a folder in his brain with an internal mouse.
“John Wesley Harding, ‘As I walked out One Morning’, third verse:
‘Depart from me this moment
I told her with my voice’.
It’s like saying ‘there’s going to be a jailbreak somewhere in this town”
“But that’s “Thin Lizzy”.
Slim looked like he had taken a sip of battery acid.
“My point is they are expressing the obvious just for the sake of a rhyme. It’s obvious that the jailbreak will be at the f….ing jail and how else will he tell her except with his voice, they’re in a field, for f… sake!”