Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”

Album cover for Massive Attack's "Blue Lines"

This week, I’ve been listening to Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album “Blue Lines” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. “Blue Lines” gets praise for it’s groundbreaking style opening the way for the genre of trip hop for the rest of the decade.I was completely unaware of Massive Attack throughout the 90s. In the early 2000s, I heard a bit of the 1998 album “Mezzanine,” but I honestly can’t say I remember anything about it.  I liked the atmosphere of other trip hop artists, especially Portishead. Somehow, a copy of Massive Attack member Tricky’s solo album “Pre-Millennium Tension” found its way into my collection and I enjoyed bits of it.

So, I was looking forward to my week with this album. Overall, this album was disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad, in fact some of it is quite good. I had expectations that it could not live up to.  To my ears today, it’s not remarkably interesting or special. I was anticipating something more like the trip hop that followed it, and really it’s hip-hop inspired pop music of the mid-90s. Perhaps what made it innovative was influential to other artists that took it further, making the original sound kind of quaint.

Like much hip-hop, the music of Massive Attack is largely sample-based. Though, as I understand, combining original music with samples was part of the innovation here. But even the SugarHill Gang was doing this back in 1979. The use of samples does not pose a problem for me, but I was disappointed to learn that the bassline from “Safe From Harm” is a sample from Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” which uses the bassline in much the same way. Massive Attack sample, one of the most sampled-artists, Funkadelic for drums.

The opening of the track with atmospheric noise and rolling bassline sounds super-cool. It reminds me of some of DJ Spooky’s (also sample-based) work “Galactic Funk” from 1996. I would assume that’s an example of me hearing the influenced before hearing the influencer. Stylish vocals float over the bassline, sung in a jazz-inflected soulful way by Shara Nelson. 

One of my favorite bits of the song are the male smooth-rapped line “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you.” They cut and manipulate this line to enhance the scratched-record feel already present in the lyrics.

The lyrics of this album frequently disappoint. I don’t know if I can condone mispronouncing “contagious” to make it rhyme with “dangerous” though. It reminds me too much of Jez’s song “Outrageous” from comedy show “Peep Show.” Also, this album provides reminders that if the listener can figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t spell it out. Like in the otherwise decent reggaeish track “One Love” when he says “They say don’t lay your eggs in one basket;
If the basket should fall all the eggs’ll be broken.” 

The smooth track “Blue Lines” features cool samples from Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. Some clean funky guitar comes from a song by The Blackbyrds. I recognize the Blackbyrds sample from several other hip hop songs around the same time. Again, the vocal are smooth rap delivered in an effortless way that contradicts much of the “spit” or harder-edge rap. Massive Attack often opt for cool over brag:

Somebody da-ditty, nobody
Walking on sunshine, but, still, we’re treading water
The son of many reasons searching for the daughter
Seeking knowledge, not acknowledging the jet-set
Silver papers of the sound within my Budakon headset
The solar system watches in wisdom
The children dance as the moonlight kissed them

The closing track “Hymn of the Big Wheel” features all original music, as far as I can find researching online. It stands also as one of the musically stronger songs. Pulsating synths provide a drone-like effect as heard in Indian or Scottish music. Over this, the vocals sing in a hymn-like melody lyrics that almost achieve what they try to do.  Again, there’s some disappointing lyrics. The line “There’s a hole in my soul like a cavity” seems rather redundant, considering “cavity” is a synonym for “hole.” Still, overall the song is a hymn, some of the best lyrics on the album.

As a child’s silent prayer my hope hides in disguise
While satellites and cameras watch from the skies
An acid drop of rain recycled from the sea
It washed away my shadow burnt a hole in me
And all the king’s men cannot put it back again
But the ghetto sun will nurture life
And mend my soul sometime againThe big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

While I enjoyed some of this album, I don’t feel I’ll be returning to it. Also, this isn’t a collection of songs I see having much influence on my own music. Still, glad I finally heard it and devoted a week getting to know it.

Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen”

This week, I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen’s debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” from 1967. My girlfriend introduced me to Leonard Cohen by giving me a copy of the Phil Spector produced album”Death of a Ladies’ Man.” I slowly grew a deep appreciation for the songs on that album.  The production was like something from a dream; The recordings smelled faintly of liquor and cigarettes.  “Death of a Ladies’ Man” provided a cool, yet haunting, melancholic atmosphere through lyrics, performance and production.

I’ve been looking forward to this week with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” At first, I was a bit disappointed by the sound. The vocals were too intimately languid and the atmosphere was much different than the Phil Spector produced album. Known as a poet before starting his music career, Cohen writes amazing lyrics. I loved them from first listen and my appreciation for them developed over the week. The music also grew on me as well. The vocals aren’t quite to my taste, but I appreciate that they suit the songs. There’s quite a bit for a songwriting musician to learn form here, especially the lyrics.

“Sisters of Mercy” got my attention first.  The songs of this album are vocal and acoustic guitar based. Any other instrumentation is there to provide support or background. This song features a jangly mixture of instruments in the background that sound like a French street band. This band consists of accordion, glockenspiel, some light percussion. The atmosphere that they provide captured my heart before the lyrics. 

Those lyrics tell a simple story of a passing interaction with two young women whom Cohen had given a place to stay. After some conversation and then seeing them sleep, he was inspired to write “Sisters of Mercy.” According to this tale, he was the person that provided charity to them, not the other way around. However, it seems that they left brightened his evening and left a lasting impression. 

Having bestowed upon them the title of “sisters of mercy,” he continues with references to religious symbolism throughout the song. In the third of the four stanzas, he elevates their conversation to the point of an awakening or spiritual conversion. The confession he mentions in this verse probably refers to the previous verse where he tells of leaving his family and his own soul. He admits to feeling lonely as a sort of punishment for his actions. “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” It’s not clear to me if he says this, or the Sisters do. Like Jesus touched the eyes of the blind, they have given him a new perspective on life and he honors them for it.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

The track “Suzanne” introduces the sound of the album well. Broken chords gently played on acoustic guitar start the track to be joined by Cohen’s reserved vocals. Even the chord progression is a gentle one: I-ii-I-iii-IV-I-ii-I-ii-I for the verses and iii-IV-I-ii-I for the chorus. The verse chord progression rises during the first half across the ii, iii, and IV, to return to ii in the second half. The steps back to the tonic chord keep the progression gently seated. The melody, too, rises and falls. 

There are three verses, each followed by a chorus. The verse follow a rhyme scheme of AABB for the first four lines and then the next two or three lines rhyme, but not following a consistent pattern. Most of the rhymes are slant. In the final verse, he rhymes “river” with “forever” and then “harbor” with “flowers” for the first two lines. The last three lines end with “morning” which somewhat ties together the rhyme of final two lines “forever” and “mirror.”

One could potentially class the titular Suzanne as a manic pixie dream girl. This woman that’s “half crazy (that’s why you want to be there)” takes the listener on a journey of discovery. She knows where the heroes are, even in the most unexpected places. This perspective on life is her gift. In the second of the three verses, where I believe the second person is shifted to Suzanne, the focus is on Jesus, whom Cohen describes as broken, forsaken. Even “he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” 

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by you can spend the night forever
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead”

This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.

The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.

The song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was my introduction to the Smiths. It remains one of my favorite songs by any artist. The lyrics of this song show obvious influence from the New York Dolls’ “Lonely Planet Boy which is also one of my favorites.

Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.

While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.

The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.

Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.

The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”

Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.

Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.

Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" album coverI’ve been getting to know Van Morrison’s 1968 album “Astral Weeks” for my “To My Ear” project. Each week I listen to an album generally recognized for being great. The goal is to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician; The process also introduces me to some great music. I disliked this album with the first few listens and was really dreading giving it a full seven days. I heard little more than monotonous ramblings over musicians trying to find a song. Gradually, parts of it grew on me. Not only did I experience usual side-effect of familiarity, but my brain had to learn how to process it. I still don’t really like most of the album, but I came to like a few tracks.

The fourth track “Cypress Avenue” closes side one of the record. The music follows something a blues progression played with in a relaxed chamber folk style. The accompaniment consists of upright bass, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, violins, and flute. The violin and flute seem to be languidly improvising throughout the song. Their apparent lack of purpose beyond atmospheric accompaniment give the song a directionless quality shared with the rest of the album. The feeling of sameness makes the already long seven minutes feel like forever. Still, this song has a stronger sense of rhythm than most them. The blues structure helps the lyrics feel less like poetic ramblings.

Those lyrics carry a sense of nostalgia and longing. Their conscious of the distance between the present and the past within the locale. This is a topic that resonates with me strongly and one that I often visit in my own songs already.

The next track, “Like Young Lovers Do, opens the second side. Like, well, the rest of the album, the song flows along in a monotonous way. In this case it’s forgiven because it’s less then four minutes long. The use of strings and horns provides a sense of movement, especially at the close of each chorus. In fact, these instruments make the chorus feel like the chorus. It’s overall a nice little song. Though, honestly, it may largely benefit from sounding different than the rest of the album.

The next track Madame George consisting stood out as my favorite all week. It was the first to catch my attention. Even after listening to the whole album multiple times, none of them had the same grand sense of purpose and heart as “Madame George.” The lyrics provide enough narrative to draw the listener in, but enough ample room for questions and interpretation. “Madame George” is a seriously good song, even when not considering how boring the rest of the album can be.

Before I get into discussing this one track, let me say that I feel like I’m missing something by not appreciating the rest of the album. Maybe spending more time with it would help. However, my goal here is to improve my songwriting. I feel that a good song gets better with repeat listening; I’m not so sure that it should take more than a week of repeated listening to appreciate a song. I spent a full week with this album and only one song truly grabbed me.

The chords of “Madame George” repeat a standard I-IV-V progression throughout. The bass provides rhythmic movement. The percussion remains silent until the very end of the song a little high-hat picks up the pace of the outro. I’ve learned this option from a few other albums I’ve listened to: have the bass serve the rhythmic purpose usually the responsibility of percussion. Chords strummed on a quiet acoustic guitar add rhythmic texture to the accompaniment. In this case it bounces across the song emphasizing the chord changes.

Over this surprisingly engaging music, Morrison sings well-written nostalgic lyrics about a final meeting (or is it George) and departure. Van Morrison leaves a lot open to interpretation. Who or what is Madame Joy and why is the speaker meeting with Madame Joy? Why is she so concerned with the potential arrival of the cops? Why is the speaker leaving on the train and why meet up with Madame Joy before leaving? Even so, it’s more about emotion than details and backstory. Each verse, a heart-captured snapshot of an event. Of this ten minute song, I do feel like the last four minutes are unnecessary. Though this may represent the speaker riding away on the train, it extends the song past the story.

I love all of the lyrics, but the fourth is my favorite today

And then from outside the frosty window raps.
She jumps up and says, “Lord, have mercy I think it’s the cops,”
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below;
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row,
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below.
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame Joy

I like that the startled reaction of Madame Joy gives a glimpse into her personality and lifestyle. The frosty window gives some indication what time of year it may be. We also learn that Madame Joy lives in Dublin and the speaker is taking the train to Sandy Row, which is in Belfast. The song started “down on Cyprus Avenue”, which is also in Belfast. I used Google Maps to figure this out. I get the feeling that the speaker is on Cyprus Avenue and gets hit with memories of Madame Joy, whom he goes to visit in Dublin. The visit isn’t all wonderful, and then heads back home on the train. So this verse helps put more of the story into perspective.

I also like that Madame Joy’s action of “dropping everything she gots down into the street below” will be echoed by the speakers “throwing pennies at the bridges down below” on the train ride. He pictures the “rain, hail, sleet, and snow” saying “goodbye to Madame Joy” which are all forms of precipitation like tears. While the song ends with several reminders to “dry your eyes for Madame Joy.” It’s a great song the way these things reveal themselves upon repeat listenings.

I wish I’d found the rest of the album so rewarding. I will definitely revisit, but I’m taking a break for a while from Van Morrison.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

Patti Smith’s “Horses”

Patti Smith's Horses album cover

I listened to Patti Smith‘s 1975 LP “Horses” for the past seven days. There’s a lot to learn here as a songwriting musician. I’ve heard about Smith for years;  I have fans as friends; Yet, this week was the first time I’ve heard her work, and  I love it. It sounds incredibly like 1970s New York City, sitting somewhere between the sound and intelligence of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and the attitude of the Ramones. This album features fantastic lyrics, great music, great production, and cool vocals.

The lyrics star as the focus of “Horses”. With this debut album, Patti Smith produced a rock n’ roll version of the way beat poets like Jack Kerouac gave poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. She arrests your attention within the first twenty seconds; “Gloria” opens the album with the powerful line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is not a cover of Them’s “Gloria” or even a re-interpretation. Smith uses the classic garage rock song as source material they way an artist uses an image in collage. Considering that “Gloria” is one of the most covered songs in rock, the use of the chorus gives the audience something they know to keep them invested with the first listen. However the refrain may be using “gloria” as a word rather than a name ironically connects the chorus to the opening line.

In the song, Kimberly, Patti speaks about the desire to keep her little sister safe. She does this through an overt narrative of being in a barn with her baby sister during a storm. The lightning is frightening, so the older sister distracts her baby sister and covers her to hide the flashes. With lines like “I knew your youth was for the taking, fire on a mental plane,” there is suggestion that she’s worried about more than a storm during her sister’s infancy. A verse towards the end of the song, more spoken than sung, demonstrates Smith’s great command of poetry and imagery:

So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

The lyrics are perhaps at their most dense and intense in “Land” where they also provide the album title “Horses”. The tell a troubling story about a young man named Johnny being raped in the hallways of what is probably a high school during the mid-1960s. Then later the speak has a romantic encounter with Johnny.

The lyrics incorporate several references to Land of a Thousand Dances. I consider these lines as drifting in from down the hall. Perhaps the hallway scene takes place during a school dance. She layers these references to dances of the 1950s and 60s with the rape; Names of dances like the Twist and the Watusi become descriptions of the act. Johnny’s mind escapes into another world, his assailants become as horses. After they finish off on Johnny, an angel or somebody named Angel taunts him “Oh, pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” Then the song further explodes poetic chaos.

There’s ambiguity and layering references to film noir, teen dances, sex, romance, rape, rock n roll, and the poet Rimbaud. They are cut together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up. I sensed this as a long time-Burroughs fan that has experimented with cut-ups many times. However, I also have read this week that Smith was inspired by the novels of Burroughs. Similarly, she has layered vocals so that disconnected lines interact with each other; Interactions like these cause our brains to interpret and fill the space between with meaning. I have always loved methods of layering and creating juxtaposition in all forms of art, and this song is a brilliant example.

And after a description of Johnny leaning against a parking meter, with a vision of him humping it, she ends with a vision of a man dancing to a simple rock n roll song, in the sheets. Is this the bed where Johnny screams out and nobody hears “the butterfly flapping in his throat”? This to is unclear. Is the “simple rock n roll song a Land of a Thousand Dances, or some other song? It’s most likely not self-referential; Of all that “Land” is, it’s definitely not a simple song. To me, this may suggest rock n roll itself as the savior of troubled or misfit youth. In the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll“, Lou Reed described how “Despite all the amputations, You know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station.” Patti Smith closes this troubled tale of Johnny with:

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock n roll
Song