Difficult Subject Matter in 90’s Song Lyrics

I don’t want to make one of those click bait “the 90’s had the best music EVER!!” posts. One can find really terrible music and really excellent music in any decade. It would be a futile task to claim one decade had the best music.

I went down a strange rabbit hole the other day, though. I just put up a song on youtube and let the autoplay happen while I worked on some other things. It shifted into some sort of 90’s nostalgia playlist, and I kept hearing very surprising lyrics. They were songs I knew from living through the time, but they handled difficult subject matter in subtle and beautiful ways I hadn’t noticed.

I’d be surprised if songs like these could get on the radio today, but I distinctly remember hearing both of these songs on the radio in the 90’s.

Let’s start with “Round Here” by Counting Crows. First off, I’d like to point out that the song is through-composed, already something that could never happen today. The song appears to be about a depressed girl who attempts suicide. But it’s also about the disillusionment of growing up and finding out all those things you were told in childhood probably didn’t matter.

If you think it’s farfetched to have so much in one “pop” song, listen to it a few times. It’s all in there and more. A quick google search brings up wild, yet convincing, interpretations. This “universality” is the hallmark of great song art. Everyone listens to it and thinks it’s about their experience.

Here’s the opening:

Step out the front door like a ghost
Into the fog where no one notices
The contrast of white on white.
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

It opens with a beautiful simile. Sometimes pop songs have similes, but they tend to be funny or ironic. It’s hard to think of any current ones that do the hard work of writing something real. “Like a ghost into the fog” is such apt imagery for the point he’s making. Ghosts are white and ethereal. Fog is white and ethereal. A ghost that steps into fog loses all sense of self and no one else can see the person. They’re lost.

Then angels see a crumbling of the difference between wrong and right. This sort of moral ambiguity is another thing it would be hard to find in today’s lyrics. In the context of one of the interpretations I provided, this is probably in reference to how adults tell children right and wrong with clear certainty. As one grows up, one learns that it’s never that obvious.

The lyrics just keep getting better from there.

Next up is “Freshmen” by the Verve Pipe. This song hit Number 5 on the Billboard Top 100. Fifteen years ago, I thought I understood this song. Now I hear it from a totally different perspective.

Originally, I thought it was about a girl that broke up with the singer and then she killed herself over it. The singer is ridden with guilt. But the lyrics, when carefully analyzed, paint a slightly different picture.

Here’s the opening:

When I was young I knew everything
She a punk who rarely ever took advice
Now I’m guilt stricken,
Sobbing with my head on the floor
Stop a baby’s breath and a shoe full of rice

The singer is a typical Freshmen. He thinks he knows everything. This is part of what has changed for me in the song. I was pretty modest as a Freshmen, but now I can look back and it terrifies me how much I thought I knew. I’ve heard this feeling only gets worse as you age.

The key to the song is given right up front. “Stop a baby’s breath” is a reference to his girlfriend getting an abortion, and how this led to a fight and breakup. “A shoe full of rice” is about how they were even planning on getting married. Again, this is subtle imagery that blows by early on in the song. It requires careful attention if one is to understand the rest of the song.

I can’t be held responsible

This is something he tells himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This is a shift in voice, because it goes from narration of the story to internal thoughts. If one takes this line at face value without understanding this shift, one will misinterpret it. Here’s the chorus:

For the life of me I cannot remember
What made us think that we were wise and
We’d never compromise
For the life of me I cannot believe
We’d ever die for these sins
We were merely freshmen

Here’s another reference to his youthful arrogance. He thought he knew everything, and convinced his girlfriend to get the abortion. He refused to compromise and it destroyed their relationship. If you don’t know this song, it’s worth a listen to the rest. It progressively complicates as the guilt reverberates. He can’t hold other relationships out of fear of it happening again.

There’s something haunting about the reiteration of “we were merely freshmen” at the end of each phrase. When we’re young, we think we can do anything without much lasting consequence, but the singer learns the hard way that one devastating mistake can haunt you forever.

To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that it isn’t the difficulty of the subject matter that I find so amazing about these 90’s hits. Plenty of current hits have difficult subject matter. It’s the delicacy with which the lyrics handle the subject. It’s poetic and abstract so that the feeling comes through but the listener interprets it to apply to their own life.

Amber Run: Pop Done Right

Let me tell you about a band you probably haven’t heard of. Amber Run is an indie pop/rock band from Nottingham. I accidentally discovered them a little over a year ago on some random Google Play station (yes, I might have said, “OK Google, play good music” just to see what would happen).

Amber Run’s debut album 5AM has probably been one of my most listened to albums since I discovered it. Their latest release, For a Moment, I was Lost, came out last month. It is a bit of a departure from from the first. I won’t be reviewing these albums. This post is more an examination of what they’re doing right.

Most pop songs follow a standard pattern. There is an introduction followed by a sparse instrumentation first verse, a chorus, a heavier instrumentation second verse, a bigger repeat of the chorus, a bridge that changes things up, a climax/guitar solo, end on the chorus.

A lot of popular songs on the radio often do a poor job at this. I think this attention to detail on building up instrumentation and texture is a lost art. It has to be interesting and subtle. Sudden instrument or pattern changes can feel unnatural and jarring. The song will lose its flow. This means a lot of modern pop bands skip this.

Certainly on 5AM, Amber Run nail this. It’s somewhat hard to describe in words. All these little transitions between all the segments I listed above are done with incredible finesse. I think of it like watching a flower bloom in time lapse. It goes from a closed, tight sound and opens up in one smooth motion. All of a sudden we have a much bigger and completely different thing. But it makes perfect sense how we got there.

Let’s break one of their songs down from that album:

It begins with a bass pluck on the beat every beat and the guitar has a sparse chord pattern. The drums play a very simple and straightforward rock pattern. There’s some light electronic sound enhancements. As we end the first verse, we get this “bloom” into something new. The drum pattern gets slightly more complicated with a harder snare on 2 and 4. The sound fills out with full guitar chords. The bass does basically the same thing, but it shouldn’t be all that different at this point.

We then get the next bloom with a more dance rhythm in the drums. The band fades down in a sort of fake out to the bridge transition. Here the feel is completely different but in a natural way. The chord progression is the same, but the pattern is a simplified version from the opening. We only have high hat in the drums.

But then it blooms again into this vastly different thing. This thing keeps building by adding texture through vocal harmony. This doesn’t exactly follow the pattern I wrote above, but what I’d strongly suggest is listening to the beginning and end without the middle. The song progresses so much that it’s kind of hard to believe it could change that much, but in the context of the song everything flowed as if it couldn’t have progressed in a different way.

And pretty much every Amber Run song on this album plays out this way. These little bloom transitions bring you to completely unexpected places without it being sudden or jarring. This leads to some truly stunning moments.

The other thing I really like about Amber Run is how they develop their smooth melodies with complicated harmonization. Melodic development is one of those concepts taught in music composition school almost immediately, but you rarely hear it in pop music. Often bands just repeat their melodies once they have them.

Amber Run establish their melodies, but then when they repeat they sometimes get embellished with extra notes (the most common type of development). But sometimes they use more complicated development by inserting pieces of the melody in a different part of the scale and extending the melodic line by a measure or two (a technique called fragmentation). If done properly, this adds tension and direction to a song unlike many pop songs that feel very static.

I could go on about many other things they do well, but I think that’s enough. Here’s a song off their new album. Listen for those brilliant blooms into new ideas and how the melody embellishes and adds intensity and direction. The song starts so subtle and ends at such an intense place. It’s quite remarkable:

On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Music 2010 Halfway Point

I can’t believe it is already halfway through the year. This means that I have to do my halfway point rankings. Sorry about being so quiet lately. I don’t expect the blog to pick up much in the near future, but I’ll try to do some more math in the next week or so. I think the best math blogging recently has been Charles Siegel at Rigorous Trivialities. It is rare that math blogging actually gets me to read a whole post in all its detail, but it has been fun to review a lot of the basics that have been posted there.

On to the music. This year has blown last year away so far. So I’ll be a little more detailed with my ranking categories than my usual 3 or 4. No particular order other than alphabetical under each category.

Stuff that is better than the best of last year:
Dillinger Escape Plan – Option Paralysis
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
The Whiskers – War of Currents

About as good as the best of last year:
The National – High Violet
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Xiu Xiu – Dear God, I Hate Myself

Quite good:
Four Tet – There is Love in You
The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Moonface – Dreamland EP

OK:
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea
Spoon – Transference

Bad/Undecided because I haven’t actually made myself listen the five requisite times through to make a valid judgement:
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year

That’s all. Some comments I guess are that Band of Horses surprised me. I thought it would be great. I love their last album. I like when bands go in a new direction, but if you throw out all of your strengths and don’t replace them with anything, then you are left with nothing. That’s really how I feel about this.

See last post for biggest surprise so far: The Whiskers. Spoon is just immature as a band. They’ve made too many albums to be putting out stuff that is this cliche and childish. The lyrics are whiny at best and the songs are predictable pop. The few good songs use highly unoriginal ideas and so leave a bad after taste as to why it is actually good.

Dillinger Escape Plan managed to overcome the negative receiving of their last album. They seemed to take the criticism to heart and returned to something that sounds more like their first album, but with the maturity of a band that’s been around awhile. Excellent work!

I think maybe my biggest surprise was how much I ended up liking The Tallest Man on Earth. The first few times through I thought it was your standard folk Dylan-wannabe. These songs really grew on me. I absolutely love them and keep returning. Very well-developed songs packed with emotion at a low-fi stripped down sound. I guess a very raw sound for today’s age of digital mastering. I do find it hard to rank above “quite good,” though, with the quality of the higher up stuff.

I hope people find this list enjoyable.

Best and Worst of 2008

It’s that time again. This will probably be a long post, but I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week or so preparing this (estimating about an hour per album, then 37 hours of listening).

Top 10 albums of the year:
1. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver
2. Some Are Lakes by Land of Talk
3. The Slip by Nine Inch Nails
4. Punch by Punch Brothers
5. At War With Walls and Mazes by Son Lux
6. Third by Portishead
7. Visiter by The Dodos
8. Falling Off the Lavender Bridge by Lightspeed Champion
9. Oracular Spectacular by MGMT
10. Secular Works by Extra Life

Now to make this easier, basically every major top albums of the year list has already come out, so I know what is strange and what isn’t. Bon Iver, Portishead, the Dodos, and MGMT get at least nods from everyone. Land of Talk isn’t too surprising considering Justin Vernon produced it. NIN probably needs some justification. Well, I’m not a NIN fan, but this album released for download for free, so I said, “Why not?” Imagine my surprise when it blew me away. Lyrically it is quite introspective and philosophical. The songs range from hard rock, to electronica, to beautiful soft soundscape. It is truly an album by a virtuoso.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Punch Brothers. They are sort of like a bluegrass band, yet fully compose their music. The first four tracks are a “suite,” and are more intricate and fully developed than most classical music I know (and I started college as a music major). It really deserves the number 4 spot, or maybe even higher.

I’ve raved about Son Lux before. His music is sort of like NIN, but more approachable. The only reason he is lower is that lyrical basically nothing happens. Lightspeed Champion is really amazing and did get some recognition on lesser known lists. He basically is what would happen if you had someone trained in rap and death metal have a revelation and start writing country music. Yes. It is the most unique sounding band on the list. Lastly, Extra Life has the most sophisticated artistic vision on the list. This group uses Renaissance and earlier melodies and incorporates it into modern “math rock.” This one will probably take the most listens to start to understand.

Honorable mentions:
Blue Lambency Downward by Kayo Dot
Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes
Dear Science, by TV on the Radio
Keep Your Eyes Ahead by The Helio Sequence

I don’t think anything needs justification there.

Bottom Five:
Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst
The Airborne Toxic Event by The Airborne Toxic Event
808s and Heartbreak by Kanye West
Perfect Symmetry by Keane
Liferz by Blood on the Wall

Let’s start with Blood on the Wall. I only got this because half way through the year, people who had nearly exactly the same list as me also had this. Big mistake. The thing I dreaded most about listening to the year again was the fact that I knew I had to listen to this garbage again. I almost deleted it from my ipod to pretend like I never got it in order to not have to review it again. Keane usually does stuff I like, but this time the lyrics are horrifically cliche and the music your standard pop. Even worse, they try to spice it up with all these random electronic effects which just makes a bad pop song near unlistenable.

The Kanye album is boring…and bad. The Auto-tune thing sounds very outdated and is used on every track. The background music is even worse with minimal drum machines often sticking out like a bad remake of cliche ’80’s music. Most surprising of all is Conor Oberst, though. I love him usually. Again with the awful lyrics. I never use lyrics to judge an album as I am much more musically than verbally inclined, but when they are this bad it is unavoidable. “He’s gonna DO IT. He’s gonna DO IT. He’s gonna DO IT by hand.” (referring to a post man delivering a letter). Or the upbeat country song in which the phrase “I don’t wanna die in a hospital” is repeated almost exclusively.

Enough of that.

Albums that were evaluated that fell somewhere in between:
Pretty Odd by Panic at the Disco, Some People Have Real Problems by Sia, The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow, Modern Guilt by Beck, Quaristice by Autechre, Lost Wisdom by Mount Eerie, At Mount Zoomer by Wolf Parade, The Stand-Ins by Okkervil River, Viva La Vida by Coldplay, Another World EP by Antony and the Johnsons, Water Curses EP by Animal Collective, Volume One by She & Him, Rearrange Us by Mates of State, Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie, Attack and Release by The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend, Lucky by Nada Surf, You & Me by The Walkmen

The attentive reader will note that it is not in alphabetical order and thus it actually is in the order that I ranked them (Pretty Odd being the highest non-honorable mention and You & Me being basically awful but not bottom 5).

As for the top 10 individual songs:
1. “Midnight Surprise” by Lightspeed Champion
2. “Head Down” by NIN
3. “Raise” by Son Lux
4. “Future Reflections” by MGMT
5. “Give Me Back My Heart Attack” by Land of Talk
6. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” by Bon Iver
7. “The Season” by The Dodos
8. “Broken Afternoon” by The Helio Sequence
9. “DLZ” by TVotR
10. “The Bones of You” by Elbow

Props go to The Helio Sequence, TV on the Radio, and Elbow for not having an overall top 10 album but having some great individual song. Also note the placement of Bon Iver at 6 despite having the number 1 overall album. I found this interesting. You just can’t beat Midnight Surprise. Look it up on youtube or something. It is an epic (something like 8 minute) song spanning all sorts of genres. Constantly changing keys and tempos and time signatures and styles and textures. Yet it all continues to flow. I hadn’t listened to the album as a whole in probably 8 months, so I was shocked that I forgot how great that song was and had to make it number 1.

Note that many great bands were not reviewed due to time and monetary constrictions. If you have a top band that you think I overlooked please comment! (I’ve gather from other lists that Deerhunter and My Morning Jacket I have to check out).