Song Analysis #57: The Killers – When You Were Young

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Title: ‘When You Were Young’
Where to find it: ‘Sam’s Town’ (2006, Island Records)
Performed by: The Killers
Words by: Brandon Flowers

During the ‘Hot Fuss’ era, I was pretty obsessed with Brandon Flowers and The Killers. With the prominence of the synthesizer in their music and Flowers citing Duran Duran has a key influence, a Duranie like me didn’t stand a chance. While ‘Hot Fuss’ remains on my mp3 player, as does their third album ‘Day and Age’, I never warmed up to sophomore LP ‘Sam’s Town’. The one song that escaped my writing off the rest of their second album is ‘When We Were Young’, which invokes something not commonly found in pop songs, at least with any level of seriousness: religion.

If you know anything about the Killers, or indeed Brandon Flowers himself, is that he is a proud, card-carrying Mormon. Mormons in America, like Roman Catholics, are often painted as a caricature of being out of touch. Recall Mitt Romney’s 47% comment that killed his chances at becoming President. (I guess I shouldn’t groan too much, since there’s a chance Mitt might return for another bid in 2020 and could potentially be our Commander-in-Chief!) Mormons also abide by some strange rules. They’re not supposed to drink soda or any drinks with caffeine in it or smoke. Interestingly, in this short interview last year after album ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was released, he reveals he can’t resist a Coke and took up smoking when he worked as a busboy in Las Vegas just so he would get breaks at work.

Whether consciously or not, I think it’s a good thing Flowers hasn’t focused on God and religion in Killers songs. As a result, the Killers’ back catalogue, at least lyrically, is much more accessible and relatable to a much wider audience, an audience that might otherwise be put off by uber religious overtones. The appearance of ‘When You Were Young’, then, is an interesting one. It names Jesus, so is it a religious song? Or is ‘Jesus’ simply a metaphor for a mortal who appears to be a savior like Jesus?

Before we go down the rabbit hole, the words:

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 1
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young

Verse 2
Can we climb this mountain
I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy
Easy now
Watch it go

Chorus 2
We’re burning down the highway skyline
On the back of a hurricane
That started turning
When you were young
When you were young

Bridge
And sometimes you close your eyes
And see the place where you used to live
When you were young

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 3
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young
(Talks like a gentleman)
(Like you imagined)
When you were young

Outro
I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

Now, the analysis:

I find this song particularly fascinating for the emotions it manages to raise inside me. Even if you’re not religious or even in any way spiritual, there’s no denying the power in both the way the song builds and a booming strength in Flowers’ vocals. This combination is explosive. Considering ‘When You Were Young’ was the Killers’ attempt to capture ‘Born to Run’ / ‘Thunder Road’-era Bruce Springsteen in a pop song, this isn’t so surprising. If you forgot this period in the Killers’ history, read this opinion piece about ‘Sam’s Town’ a decade after its release, in which author Steven Hyden recalls an interview Flowers did with Blender’s Jonathan Weiner and proclaims his love for The Boss. Beyond this paragraph in Hyden’s piece, it faithfully reports on the time when what was coming out of Flowers’ mouth in interviews was his band’s own worst enemy.

The lyrics for ‘When You Were Young’ by themselves are particularly poignant, returning us to a place of innocence, when life was simpler and our imagined happily ever after was far off in the distance but still seemed entirely attainable. It’s a cool trick, that any young music fan who comes across ‘Sam’s Town’ now will be in this boat, long after those of us who were around for its release, and be in the same exact position we were then. As we get older, the illusion of this happily ever after breaks, whether acutely like a shattered mirror after a spouse cheats on us, or the cracks appear and grow wider over time as we get hurt repeatedly. Some of us play a game of pretend that everything’s just fine and dandy. Others try to hold on to the reality, deciding to suffer through it because the thought of being an escapist is worse. Those people hope the painful reality won’t break them before they get to the other side. Neither of these choices is better than the other.

Over the years, I’ve read bits of psychobabble here and there on how society has brainwashed women to expect and wait for a man to come rescue them because they can’t take care of themselves, that they’re incomplete without a man. Some of the more controversial pieces I’ve seen, including this one, paint Disney as one of the worst offenders when it comes in promulgating what’s called here as ‘the Disney princess effect’. While I see their point, it discounts us women – all of us who were once young girls – from making up our own minds. There’s a different between watching a movie or reading fiction and what you decide you want in real life, right?

In the first verse and chorus of the song, Brandon Flowers is a bystander, talking to a woman who’s visibly upset, or imagining he can have a conversation with her. “You sit there in your heartache / Waiting on some beautiful boy to / To save you from your old ways” can represent the mythical knight on a white horse, coming to rescue her. This is a man looking over a woman’s predicament. How a man views a relationship ending or one on the rocks is, most times, very different than how a woman would view the same situation. “You play forgiveness” suggests the woman is merely going through the moments of forgiveness without actually believing it herself. Then “Watch it now / Here he comes”, the man she’s forgiven, in theory at least, returns to her.

The anthemic chorus comes in and puts the pedal to the metal. He’s still imagining what’s going through her head. He’s not judgmental. He’s sensitive to the fantasy that’s been sitting inside her mind for years: “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus / but he talks like a gentleman / like you imagined / when you were young”.

Verse 2 indicates obstacles and conflict, using a formidable mountain as a metaphor: think Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s peerless ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. I’m imagining that Flowers is the other man, not the one of her dreams, but he’s insistent that despite the mountain being “higher now than ever before,” with him, “I know we can make it if we take it slow.” The modified chorus that follows suggests further upheaval and a life that isn’t going as smoothly as we wish: “We’re burning down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane / That started turning”. The repetition of the title here and throughout drives home the overarching influence of what the girl wished for when she was young.

I’ve honestly thought long and hard about the bridge and have trouble wrapping my head around it. The only explanation that makes sense to me is a religious one. If you take it literally and equate the devil’s water to alcohol, it makes sense from a Mormon point of view. Taking it wider into the world of bigger vices, for Mormons or not, the bridge seems to take on the idea of sinning, of doing something bad in God’s eyes, and saying doing something ‘bad’ actually as terrible as everyone says it is. Sure, don’t jump in the pool with the devil, but stick your toes in there like everyone else, and you’ll be all right.

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1 repeats and the chorus returns with echoed lines. But have a look how the words change at the outro. It’s Flowers’ last stab at reminding the girl that he understands her childhood dream but “more than you’ll ever know,“ the other guy isn’t who she thinks he is. And he’s definitely not his savior. The official promo video has religious overtones and it’s staged so that the end of the song comes across as a warning to the girl. You realize everything you’ve watched before that moment is what will soon be for her. This isn’t a video analysis blog but I’m sure someone who’s into that would have a field day with it.

I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

If you’ve wondered why this song is so catchy and easy to sing, there’s a reason: Flowers admits it was written with one chord progression and some simple variations of that progression. You weren’t just imagining it. Even he appreciates the simplicity of the song!

Advertisements

Song Analysis #56: C Duncan – I’ll Be Gone by Winter

Tags

, , , , , ,

Title: ‘I’ll Be Gone by Winter’
Where to find it: ‘Architect’ (2015, FatCat Records)
Performed by: C Duncan
Words by: Christopher Duncan

Since last winter, I have been on a new journey towards better understanding my place and purpose in this world. As someone who has spent a lot – frankly, probably far too much – of her time thinking about life, death, and the meaning of both, I think the start of this path would have happened eventually, but certain circumstances personally and professionally certainly gave me a big, fat shove in the right direction. The more isolated you get, you begin to realize it’s your strength in morals and what you stand for that prove difficult for many of the people in your life to go along with and accept. They don’t like looking at themselves in the mirror and confronting who they really are. So they leave you behind, for other people they can continue to be superficial with. But don’t worry. The right people will filter in, like sunlight through the panes of a Victorian glasshouse during a rainstorm. They will listen, support, and stay, and you will know who they are.

When I was a child, I had few close friends. I had a really hard time with this, assuming that I was the one with the problem. Here’s just one example: my best friend in 7th grade dumped me for a prettier, more popular girl. As best friends, I’d assumed that we would be working together on a team project in social studies. Instead, I was informed on a curt phone call that I was being replaced in her social circle. This came out of nowhere. From that humiliating moment, I turned around and started writing poetry because it was something I could do on my own. I turned inward and got better at relying on myself instead of others. I guess I should be grateful to her.

I can now look back at those difficult times and better empathize with that younger version of myself. Being an old soul is difficult in a world when you’re always fighting the tide. But there are many blessings to being an empath, too. Because of the struggles I’ve gone through, the times I’ve somehow cheated death and been granted another chance, the sensitivity I have to feel other people’s emotions, absorbing them like a psychic sponge and feeling them like they were my own: I’ve reflected on the fact that I tend to ‘see’ more meanings to the lyrics of a song than most.

One thing that I was thinking about in the planning stages of this analysis: there’s a disproportionate number of Christmastime holiday songs focused on the topic of togetherness. Often times, there’s a yearning of the protagonist to return home, or he/she waiting for a significant other to come back. Amazingly, this song is about neither, and yet can elicit the same level of emotions in me that I’ve seen the trite, garden variety Christmas song can in other people. It actually makes me feel like I’m in one of those tabletop snow globes.

First, the words:

Verse 1
I’ll be gone by winter,
I’ll have said goodbye,
to wind and rain, it’s all the same,
in my mind.

Verse 2
I’ll be gone by winter,
far across the sea,
away from snow, and all I know,
left behind.

‘Bridge’ 1
How slow the days go,
when you don’t come around anymore.
I’ll wait for sunlight in the grey.

Verse 3
By the end of winter,
day and night subside.
The spring will come and bring the sun,
for a while.

Verse 4
Summer passed unnoticed,
autumn’s come and gone,
and rain will start and break my heart,
like before.

‘Bridge’ 2
How slow the nights go,
When you don’t come around anymore.
I’ll wait for daybreak in the grey.

Verse 5
I’ll be gone by winter,
time to say farewell.
I’ll be far from here this time next year,
goodbye, goodbye.

Now, the analysis:

C Duncan is a Scottish songwriter who has a great talent in creating choral-sounding compositions by layering versions of his own voice. The results are pretty astounding: when you’re listening to a song of his, it’s like being sat in the church of C Duncan, multiple C Duncans in the choir singing angelically, and having the vocals wash over you. The experience is much like I’d imagine it would have sounded like upon being present the first time Handel brought out the Messiah. Many music reviewers have commented on the throwback sound of C Duncan’s music, for its folk and psychedelic leanings, of his harmonies being reminiscent of barbershop quartets of days gone by. Based on all of that, I’d say odds are good that he’s an old soul.

Duncan says his main goal is to write a good pop song, but if you look at the lyrics laid above, you’ll notice key pieces of any usual pop song are missing. There’s repetition in the melody presented in the verses, so that’s why I’ve marked them as verses, but it’s kind of a misnomer, as there’s no chorus to be found at all to separate them. What I’m calling the bridges are actually another kind of verse, but I’m calling them bridges because their minor key-led melody are different from the verses, and they act as reasonably nice segues between the verses. There is also a complete absence of the usual, often times awkward instrumental interlude to further separate the parts of the song, which is also unusual. Not a second is wasted. The song just keeps going along, gently, like a river, with nothing but his vocals and the spare notes and chords of an acoustic guitar. Got all that?

The first time I heard this song in its entirety, I was getting Smiths’ ‘Asleep’ vibes. It made me cry. If you ‘read’ the song in this way, the singer is telling us he’ll be gone by the time the weather becomes cold and it starts snowing again, but it’s ambiguous on how he intends to meet his end. I’ve considered that this interpretation fits well with how we traditionally view winter in the Northern Hemisphere. As we get closer to the winter solstice, the leaves of the trees have long gone, leaving what New Englanders call “stick season”, where what once were regal displays of lush green. Plants have either gone dormant or have died, without any hope of revival. We won’t see the bright color of a flower for many months. The landscape becomes desolate, as if the vibrancy we once saw with our own eyes has now being choked by the neutral tones. For animals, winter’s relationship with death can be literal, too: the ones that aren’t the strongest in their respective groups won’t survive the cold and brutal weather, what I’m imagining is “the wind and rain, it’s all the same / in my mind.” of C Duncan’s Glasgow.

If you go into verse 2, there may be some respite from this first interpretation. The words “I’ll be gone by winter / far across the sea / away from snow, and all I know / left behind.” suggests that he’s simply leaving what has become too familiar. It still leaves me unsettled, because of why he’s making this move, which comes in through the first bridge:

How slow the days go,
when you don’t come around anymore.
I’ll wait for sunlight in the grey.

Someone beloved is no longer making an appearance in his life anymore, and the absence represents a major void. Presuming that person was a positive influence and provided much needed brightness in his life, the absence of this light is, then, profound. Having read the press release for his 2016 album ‘The Midnight Sun’, I grasped that at the Arctic Circle, which experiences this phenomenon in summer when dusk never truly falls, it’s disconcerting to your body’s normal rhythm with the day when you don’t actually ever see the sun. Glasgow’s location by latitude isn’t as extreme, but I can see how having ‘light’ in winter is genuinely important because of the seemingly ever declining amount of daylight that time of year.

Three years ago before seeing a show at Edinburgh University’s Potterrow, I stumbled upon this cosy little bar completely by accident, hidden away in the old town. On each of the tables were those big chianti bottles with candles you see in Italian restaurants, the previously melted wax hanging over the sides of the bottles. For some reason, I was spellbound by the flame that was presently on my table and considered how important it is for the world to have visionaries, and how some visionaries are actually just normal people like you and me, doing what looks like ordinary things every day but their words and actions actually represent something extraordinary in someone else’s life.

In a similar context with this song ‘I’ll Be Gone by Winter’, I have been thinking about how people can provide figurative light, guiding others with their wisdom and love. Then my mind shifted over to the idea that this person who doesn’t “come around any more” could be someone who is no longer alive. Of course, when someone dies, there’s no more physical presence of that person. Their spirit goes on, but their flame has been extinguished. The loss of that person in your life is still deeply palpable. Notice, too, that in bridge one, Duncan sings of “how slow the days go”, then changes one word in bridge two to “how slow the nights go”. By the simple swapping out of one word, you’re presented with a contrast that serves to extend by time that feeling of loss. I find it’s also a useful contrast, in the sense that most everything looks and feels different in the optimistic (or harsh) light of day compared to the loneliness of the dark of night.

By the end of winter,
day and night subside.
The spring will come and bring the sun,
for a while.

Summer passed unnoticed,
autumn’s come and gone,
and rain will start and break my heart,
like before.

Like verses 1 and 2, verses 3 and 4 are paired like brothers. While verses 1 and 2 concentrate on the intention of leaving by next winter, verses 3 and 4 are concerned with the passage of the seasons. Duncan highlights how “day and night subside”, the extremes of the two become less obvious the further out you get from winter. Spring is mentioned almost as if a necessary evil, that the sun that spring brings is only “for a while.” Summer and autumn are mentioned in practically the same breath, and as if afterthoughts. Winter is clearly the star of this song, its ominous reach extending to “break my heart” as the seasonal rain returns “like before.

How slow the nights go,
When you don’t come around anymore.
I’ll wait for daybreak in the grey.

As mentioned earlier, bridge 2 features the line “how slow the nights go”. The last line of bridge 2, “I’ll wait for daybreak in the grey.”, is also more bleak than its sister line in bridge 1, “I’ll wait for sunlight in the grey.” This feels pessimistic, that a new day will dawn, sure, but with it, no light will come. He will survive to see another day, but just barely. Winter has taken hold and with its grip is a sense of foreboding.

I’ll be gone by winter,
time to say farewell.
I’ll be far from here this time next year,
goodbye, goodbye.

By the time we reach the fifth and final verse, Duncan returns to his original statement of intent, after taking us on a cyclical journey through the seasons. We’ve now been returned to where we started, in winter. We’re reminded that he hasn’t actually left us. Yet. At the end of a calendar year, it’s only natural to take stock of what we’ve accomplished, what we haven’t, how we’ve been wronged, and how we’ve triumphed over adversity. Although this song is slow in tempo and it’s definitely melancholic, C Duncan has tucked some lilting, ascending notes in here for us, marked above in bold, purple text. I don’t think those were put in there by mistake. As we all say goodbye to another year, one that has proven trying on so many levels, I think the take home message of ‘I’ll Be Gone by Winter’ is that there is still time, for change and miracles, and hope.

Lastly, a stream of the song, as it’s not been released as a single and doesn’t have its own proper promo video yet.

Song Analysis #55: Jason Mraz – The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Before going ahead with this post, please read this first.

Title: ‘The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)’
Where to find it: ‘Waiting for My Rocket to Come’ (2002, Elektra); released as a single in March 2003
Performed by: Jason Mraz
Words by: Jason Mraz and The Matrix

First, the words:

Verse 1
I saw fireworks from the freeway and behind closed eyes I cannot make them go away
‘Cause you were born on the fourth of July, freedom ring
Now something on the surface it stings
That something on the surface, it kind of makes me nervous,
who says that you deserve this, and what kind of god would serve this?
We will cure this dirty old disease,
if you’ve got the poison, I’ve got the remedy

Prechorus
The remedy is the experience
It is a dangerous liaison
I say the comedy is that it’s serious,
which is a strange enough new play on words
I say the tragedy is how you’re gonna spend the rest of your nights with the light on
So shine the light on all of your friends because it all amounts to nothing in the end

Chorus
I won’t worry my life away.
I won’t worry my life away.

Verse 2
I heard two men talking on the radio in a crossfire kind of new reality show
Uncovering the ways to plan the next big attack
They were counting down the days to stab the brother in the be right back after this
The unavoidable kiss, where the minty fresh death breath is sure to outlast his catastrophe
Dance with me,
because if you’ve got the poison, I’ve got the remedy

Prechorus
The remedy is the experience
It is a dangerous liaison
I say the comedy is that it’s serious,
which is a strange enough new play on words
I say the tragedy is how you’re gonna spend the rest of your nights with the light on
So shine the light on all of your friends because it all amounts to nothing in the end

Chorus
I won’t worry my life away.
I won’t worry my life away.

Bridge
When I fall in love, I take my time,
there’s no need to hurry when I’m making up my mind.
You can turn off the sun, but I’m still gonna shine, and I’ll tell you why
Because…

Prechorus
The remedy is the experience
It is a dangerous liaison
I say the comedy is that it’s serious,
which is a strange enough new play on words
I say the tragedy is how you’re gonna spend the rest of your nights with the light on
So shine the light on all of your friends because it all amounts to nothing in the end

Chorus
I won’t worry my life away.
I won’t worry my life away.
I won’t, and I won’t, and I won’t…

Now, the analysis:

In case you somehow missed it, Jason Mraz wrote ‘The Remedy’ after hearing his good friend had been diagnosed with cancer. Heavy stuff. But this would be a really short analysis if I stopped here, right?

I’m going in a different direction. In fact, I’m going towards what I thought the song was about the first time I heard it 15 years ago. You know, when we still listened to stuff mostly on the radio. Also, for the first time, I’m also going to start from the middle of the song and work my way outwards.

I initially made the incorrect assumption what this song was about. I was so sure this song was about not hurrying love, telling the listener to be patient and love will come in its own time. I mean, come on, isn’t that what these words are saying?

When I fall in love, I take my time,
there’s no need to hurry when I’m making up my mind.

However, I do concede Mraz’s verses are pretty nonsensical, so I should have guessed the real meaning would not be something as simple as that. Okay, so the first verse mentions “we will cure this dirty old disease” and the intention “if you’ve got the poison, I’ve got the remedy”. So that fits with his friend’s cancer diagnosis. However, what is this stuff about “I saw fireworks from the freeway and behind closed eyes I cannot make them go away”, then all this discussion about a strange radio show and “The unavoidable kiss, where the minty fresh death breath is sure to outlast his catastrophe”? Huh? What?

What I latched on to first, those many years ago, was one line sung so sweetly. “I won’t worry my life away.” Notice that Mraz changes the notes and lifts the positivity in one the final few times he sings this line, carefree and happy. It’s incredible. It makes you feel good.

Sing it again. “I won’t worry my life away.” What is it about?

It’s about anxiety. Think back to what Mraz’s actual impetus to write this song was. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that his own anxiety and concern about his dear friend bled out into the rest of the song. The emotions you feel when you’re feeling out of control, such as hearing the horrible news that your friend has given potentially a death sentence, is sure to elicit the big A in your life. You might be the least anxious person in the world and then something horrible like this happens and you’re thrown into an emotional tailspin.

What’s interesting is that in the last few weeks, the song has shown up on the channels I listen to on SiriusXM. As a captive audience listening to it while being stuck in traffic, I’ve been paying even more attention to the lyrics. Let’s look at this line first: “I say the tragedy is how you’re gonna spend the rest of your nights with the light on.” That’s another line about anxiety, yes?

The next line is curious, as it doesn’t seem to follow suit with the previous. “So shine the light on all of your friends because it all amounts to nothing in the end”. While I agree with some suggestions I’ve read on the Web that say it’s about enlightenment, I think it’s more specific than that: the haters and fake friends in your life. Putting a spotlight on them, calling them to the carpet, you will find out who will stand with you in your hour of need and who will falter or completely disappear. The fakers have no substance. They know talk is cheap and are good at stroking egos but when put to task, they cower and hide because they know they cannot stand by their principles. Because they have none.

If you apply ‘haters gonna hate, fakers gonna fake’ to Mraz’s true meaning of ‘The Remedy’, it’s a reminder that while he’s anxious and concerned about his friend’s condition, he’s the kind of friend who will stick by his friend through these tough times as he undergoes treatment. You can also link “I won’t worry my life” to the bullies who embody ‘haters gonna hate, fakers gonna fake’. The more you worry, the more you shrink and kowtow to those whose sole purpose appears to be cutting you down and killing your self-esteem, the less you are living YOUR life. Don’t let them. Don’t worry your life away. Live your life for YOU. And if you’re struggling, find out how to work with your anxiety or seek professional help.

Jason Mraz has faith in you. He wants to think positively with this mantra: “You can turn off the sun, but I’m still gonna shine.

Lastly, the song, which absolutely makes no sense to what I’ve just written above. You have been warned!