Song Analysis Correspondence (Part Two)

by Jonathan Hust and Clifton Smith

This is the second part of an ongoing correspondence.

Jonathan,

Why should we bother with all of this song scrutiny? What possible good could all of this extra thinking amount to? Isn’t it enough to like whatever we like as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody?

I won’t claim complete surety about the answers to these questions, but I will talk about my own motivation.

I often think back to movies I liked when I was younger. I recall watching a movie called A Pyromaniac’s Love Story. I saw this, and it was an instant favorite. I must’ve been around thirteen since that movie came out in 1995. I remember I came to your house to watch movies not very long after watching that movie. I recommended it, and your family and I gathered around to watch it. Watching it a second time, I couldn’t forgive myself for exposing anyone else to something so embarrassingly awful. The characters and plot suddenly seemed unbelievably shallow. I now found the acting to be passable but unremarkable. The parts I had found funny then seemed just crass or obvious. The surprises now gone because of that earlier viewing, I could clearly see the trembling, withered legs of mediocrity holding that movie up.

I mention this experience not because it was the catalyst (though, certainly, it was a catalyst) for my current attempts at adopting a more critical attitude toward music and movies, but because it might be more of a touchstone experience for both of us. It has taken a huge number of similar experiences to convince me of how limited a single viewing of a movie can be without some kind of probing afterwards. All of my similar experiences have made me wonder if there isn’t a quicker way to get at a better evaluation of a movie, song, book, etc. It seems to me that we can get at this better evaluation by interrogating the thing we’re experiencing and ourselves better.

I know that I can’t trust myself to make a good, quick evaluation of something. So, I have to think about it harder. An effective way for me to do this is to try to explain it to someone else and talk about it. Doing this, I’ve found I’ve had to dismiss some things I’ve liked as not very good. I’ve found many other things, though, for which my appreciation deepens each time I experience them.

In our previous set of correspondences, we tried to get at something like a system for analyzing song lyrics. We came up with categories to explore each set of lyrics (for example: originality, rhyme, and complexity). We talked about whose lyrics we should look at and compare. I believe that we both agreed to abandon words like “good” and “bad” in favor of something like “degrees of richness.” Though I think “rich” still sounds pretty similar to “good,” I can’t think of any better alternative. I think we will be fairly safe calling a song that meets our conditions for originality and complexity, “rich.”

It seems to me that we can get at this better evaluation [of movies, songs, books, etc.] by interrogating the thing we’re experiencing and ourselves better.”

Thinking back over our previous letters, I feel the most progress we made was in our conversation about Ryan Adams’s “September.” I think we have to keep scrutinizing other songs this closely. It isn’t enough, I’m convinced, to mention some lyrics at the end of a letter in hopes that they are read by someone. I’m starting to feel that it might be irresponsible of us to do this without discussing our deeper motives for wanting others to hear the songs or read the lyrics. We previously mentioned a good deal of musicians and songs. Let’s look back over what we’ve got and get into deeper scrutiny. What do you say?

You gave me a good deal to think about when you talked about your hesitance to separate music from lyrics. You mentioned that taking away the music from the song might also take away some of the human aspect. Though I argued in my response that I think the lyrics are just as much a part of a song’s as the music, I have been thinking about the question of how much information is actually conveyed by music since you brought this up. I have decided that, for the most part, little is conveyed by music. Music indicates to us, basically, how we should feel about what we’re listening to. We know that something discordant will likely accompany something in the song that is unpleasant. A minor chord will accompany something mostly sad. A major chord will likely accompany something mostly happy. We know these things because the overwhelming majority of music we’ve heard since before we were born has embedded this pattern of thought onto our brains. This seems to be the case to me, but, of course, I’m open to having this viewpoint changed.

You say that Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette,

have a unique focus on deconstructing the words themselves into separate syllables, which seems to be done to make the vocal itself percussive. It’s a really interesting way to look at words and the way they can be used almost as another instrument in a song.

Of Alanis’s “Knees of My Bees” you say,

Pay close attention to the line “You are a gift renaissance with a wink, with tendencies for conversations that raise bars” for a prime example of what I meant by deconstructing a word to syllables.



a clip of “Knees of My Bees”

You say that she is “deconstructing a word to syllables.” If you mean that she breaks it down to its constituent parts, I agree with you, but I don’t think she is unique in doing so. It seems to me that everybody who speaks or sings, uses syllables. All I can hear Alanis doing is changing the emphasis of certain syllables in certain words and outright mispronouncing some words. For instance, she pronounces “TEN-den-cies” as “ten-DUN-cies.” I don’t mind this and I do find it interesting; but I don’t know that it is necessary and I don’t know that it helps convey the song’s message any better. The most unique quality I can hear in Alanis’s singing is her shrill inhalations: they seem to add a hysteric quality to all of her songs that I’ve heard. This may add an insistent quality to her songs, but I don’t know what else it does.

I have decided that, for the most part, little is conveyed by music. Music indicates to us, basically, how we should feel about what we’re listening to.”

I get even less from Matthews’s “Raven.” I don’t find his vocal delivery especially percussive and I don’t think it makes the song much more interesting. Lyrically, he stops making sense to me after the first verse. Perhaps you can think of a way to isolate just the percussive quality of his voice. Perhaps I’m just not listening closely enough. I can hear, maybe, that he is emphasizing certain words on accented beats. Is this what you’re talking about? Do you think your opinion of the song would change if Dave were singing in Afrikaans instead of English?

What I really hope we can get at (and maybe what we can offer others) with all of this is a way of talking about songs casually, but also with some depth (hopefully, Alanis’s “conversations that raise bars”). I don’t hear this happening very often. Do you? If so, can you share a story? I will give you an example that comes to mind of one of the more probing content-conversations I’ve had with someone.

I was probably walking around work singing something from Ben Folds’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, and a coworker overheard me. She said, “Is that ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs?'” I said, “Yeah. You’ve heard it then?”
“Yeah. It’s great! Folds is so funny in that song because he’s so critical of insincerity— ‘You better watch out because I’m gonna say fuck!’ Ha!”
“I know,” I responded, laughing. “He’s so great!”

And that’s all I remember happening. If that was the end of the conversation about that song, then I think I didn’t do my part in trying to figure out why it or Ben are so great. I still like the song. I think now I would be quicker to look for possible hypocrisy in “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” though. He seems critical mainly of musicians using angst, attitude and computers to make false statements about what a bitch it is “being male, middle class, and white.” Thinking over Folds’s material that I’m familiar with, I would say that he doesn’t make angsty music that casts him as the victim of a world that has left well-to-do musicians living in boxes and longing for their next heroin fixes. So, what kind of music is Ben criticizing in “Rockin’ the Suburbs”? William Ruhlmann, writing for allmusic about Linkin Park’s album Hybrid Theory has the following to say:

“One Step Closer,” the track released to radio in advance of the album’s release, is a typical effort, with lyrics like “Everything you say to me/Takes me one step closer to the edge/And I’m about to break.” It might be easier to believe in all this angst if the group members didn’t take such pains to thank their families in the lengthy acknowledgments in the CD booklet, followed by an extensive list of product endorsements. But even without the fine print to undermine its sincerity, Linkin Park sounds like a Johnny-come-lately to an already overdone musical style.

I’d like to go on about the rest of Rockin’ the Suburbs and talk about Folds’s body of work in more depth, but I will save it for future emails. And anyway, I’d prefer to hear your thoughts on Folds and other things first and go from there. To get back to my original point about Folds, I don’t experience a lot of probing conversations about music content. For example, I asked you what you think Ryan Adams means in “September” by “I feel you coming but I don’t know how.” You said you think “it is just an acknowledgement of a person that can have a profound effect on your thoughts and emotions, even in their prolonged absence.” This just doesn’t jive with what Adams says, though.

I think your interpretation comes from a tendency I think a lot of people have (myself included) to make excuses for songwriters we like who use ambiguity to sound profound. I don’t know that I’m completely opposed to abstractions, but how much of music is abstraction and how much is substantial? You, Jonathan, don’t write songs like that. Why make excuses for others who do? “I feel you coming but I don’t know how” can’t, without you rewriting it mentally, have the meaning you give it. Imagine what you’ve written as dialogue in a conversation. I’ll set the scene for you:

We see the interior of a dimly lit bar. Some people in a corner are quietly playing eight-ball. A smoky haze lingers throughout the smallish space. The grizzled bartender is lazily wiping up where a patron just left. Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Some Gave All” plays on the jukebox. There are a couple of old cowboys, long-time friends, sitting at the bar. Their hats are turned up casually. They have relaxed grips on the handles of their dingy glass beer mugs. One of the men is Hank. Hank’s son, Waylon, died in Iraq exactly one year ago, and Hank has just visited his grave. The two men stare unblinkingly at their half-drunk beers. After a couple of minutes, Hank finally starts speaking, but barely moves as he says, “It’s amazing to me how a person can have a profound effect on your thoughts and emotions, even in their prolonged absence.”

Johnny considers this for a moment and replies, “I know it. I feel him coming too, Hank. I feel him coming, but I don’t know how.”

Hank thinks this over for a moment and murders his old friend with his beer mug. He then hops behind the bar, picks up a bazooka and explodes the jukebox.

I think your interpretation comes from a tendency I think a lot of people have (myself included) to make excuses for songwriters we like who use ambiguity to sound profound.”

In case I’ve muddied my point further with this story, I’ll say again that I think we need to try to do a better job of interpreting and analyzing things in a way that makes sense. I’ve spoken to artists (musicians, filmmakers, painters, etc.) and read statements by artists where they say that it’s up to their audiences to interpret what they’ve done. Fine. But, why not also have some kind of point? Can’t we have both abstraction and meaning in a single work of art?

Aside from appreciating things more deeply/fully, what else might be a benefit of all of this work? When I ask myself this, I have to think about the enormous amount of music I’ve listened to and committed to memory and that I’ve been moved by and that I’ve tried to share with others. All of this music is a drop in a nearly unfathomably deep bucket. How much of it was worth anyone’s time? How much effort and expense were put into these productions?

When I think about the world, I think that there’s not a second for human beings to waste. We’re all the time on the verge of obliterating ourselves. Among other things, we’ve got mass starvation, climate issues, and deep-seated chauvinisms (racism, jingoism, and sexism are a few) that we don’t seem to be doing enough to overcome. I can’t think of a good reason why we can’t work to correct such things or, at least, better draw attention to them with our music.

A lot of people tell me that optimism in the face of human fallibility is naïve or unrealistic. As it stands, I disagree. I can’t help think that pessimism is most often a result of laziness. What would be less lazy, in my view, is making more music with concrete messages that are more instructive. Sexsmith does a better job than many musicians I’ve heard. He teaches and exemplifies compassion in songs like “Cheap Hotel,” “For the Driver,” and “God Loves Everyone.” We need more Sexsmith’s, though, and ones that offer more than compassion. There are other pressing subjects we could hear about more often: science and politics, for example.

I can’t think of a good reason why we can’t work to correct such things [as mass starvation, climate issues, and deep-seated chauvinisms] or, at least, better draw attention to them with our music.”

As I type, Billboard’s Hot 100 lists Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” as number one in radio popularity. Here’s a lyric sample:

Soulja Boy off in this hoe
Watch me crank it
Watch me roll
Watch me crank that Soulja Boy
Then Superman that hoe
Now watch me do (crank that Soulja Boy)

What’s he talking about? Watch him crank what? Watch him roll? Where to? Does he want me to watch him drive/exist/fuck? How does a person Superman someone? Here’s the chorus from the number two song, Kanye West’s “Stronger”:

Now that that don’t kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
Cause I can’t wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
Cause I can’t get much wronger
Man I been waitin’ all night now
That’s how long I’ve been on ya
I need ya right now
I need ya right now

It sounds like Kanye is horny. Good for him. Fergie, in the number three position has something a bit more interesting to say in “Big Girls Don’t Cry”:

I hope you know
That this has nothing to do with you
It’s personal, myself and I
We’ve got some straightenin’ out to do
And I’m gonna miss you
like a child misses their blanket
But I’ve got to get a move on with my life
It’s time to be a big girl now
And big girls don’t cry

At least she’s not advocating emotional dependency.

This is from the number four song, “The Way I Are,” by Timbaland and Keri Hilson:

[Timbaland]
I ain’t got no money
I ain’t got no car to take you on a date
I can’t even buy you flowers
But together we could be the perfect soul mates
Talk to me girl

[Keri Hilson]
Baby, it’s alright now,
you ain’t gotta flaunt for me
If we go and touch, you can still touch my love, it’s free
We can work without the perks just you and me
Work it out ’til we get it right

It’s nice to see that a poor man can still touch a pretty girl’s “love.”

That’s all for me for now!

I’ll have to get to Eminem later.

– clifton

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Clifton,

You’ve asked why we should bother with our scrutiny and extra thinking about songs, and I would contend that the Sagan quote you’ve provided has answered those questions sufficiently. Since our unique advantage over other animals is, as Sagan calls it, “our characteristically human thought,” wouldn’t that make any song that provokes human thought something worth “the bother”? How much of what we’ve heard was worth anyone’s time? I would contend that it was worth someone’s time, or it would never have been created in the first place, let alone listened to or scrutinized.

Music is communal, and distinctly human, just as language is. The value of a song does not come solely from what can be taken away from it. Better said, music is more than its mechanics; much of its value is contained in its function. Valuable as it may be, that function is not owned by us, so asking it to function as one specific thing or another would seem undoubtedly selfish to me.

Music is communal, and distinctly human, just as language is. The value of a song does not come solely from what can be taken away from it.”

If we want to discuss the many problems of the world, let us discuss them, or even aim to share examples (with each other and our readers) of those problems being brought to light through song, but can we agree to steer clear of making that function our required function in our ongoing study of lyric and song? I believe not steering clear of that would, indeed, narrow our perspective and understanding of this uniquely human expression we call music.


Marcel Proust

I’d like to include this Marcel Proust quote Trevor [co-editor of [sic]] sent us, as it comes to mind when I think about the value of music:

Pour out your curses on bad music, but not your contempt! The more bad music is played or sung (and usually more passionately than good music) the more it is filled with tears, with human tears. It has a place low down in the history of art, but high up in the history of the emotions of the human community. Respect (I do not say love) for bad music is not in itself a form of charity, it is much more the awareness of the social role of music. The people always have the same messengers and bearers of bad tidings in times of calamity and radiant happiness: bad musicians. Here, the horrible refrain, rejected at first hearing by every sensitive and well-trained ear, preserves the secret of numberless personal life stories, to whom it meant fertile inspiration and ever-ready consolation. A book of poor melodies, dog-eared from much use, should touch us like a town or a tomb. What does it matter that the houses have no style, or that the gravestones disappear beneath stupid inscriptions or banal ornamentation.

I don’t consider for a second that everything I’ve ever listened to has had equal levels of lyrical or musical depth, but at the same time, I’ve never taken the position that something I’ve listened to was a waste of time. Any song or artist I hear that I dislike only seems to help me in clarifying what I do like, which is much, much, more music than we’ve even begun to talk about. Quantity is certainly not a very fulfilling substitute for quality, but without investing a significant amount of our time and efforts into what we can both acknowledge as an endless “quantity” available to us in music, how could we expect to continue finding more examples of quality? We do need more Ron Sexsmiths; I couldn’t agree with you more. But I have a hard time believing that experiencing quality multiplied by a few examples can ever be as beneficial as having that experience multiplied many times over.

I have a hard time believing that experiencing quality multiplied by a few examples can ever be as beneficial as having that experience multiplied many times over.”

Bear with me for a moment, as I think this will help illustrate my personal perspective in a more accurate way, and help reiterate my point. Here is a list of albums that I have listened to in the last two weeks, many of which garnered repeated listenings:

Alex Radus’s Love Me Like You Hate Me,
Jason Molina’s Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go,
Josh Ritter’s The Animal Years,
Josh Ritter’s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,
Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,
Spoon’s Girls Can Tell, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky,
Wilco’s A Ghost is Born,
Ben Harper’s Lifeline,
Athlete’s Beyond the Neighborhood,
Elliott Smith’s XO,
Buffalo Tom’s Three Easy Pieces,
Garrison Starr’s The Sound of You and Me,
Hooverphonic’s No More Sweet Music,
Inara George’s All Rise,
The Bird and the Bee’s The Bird and the Bee,
M.I.A.’s Kala, Tricky’s Maxinquaye,
The White Stripes’ Icky Thump,
Tom Waits’s Closing Time,
Liars’ self-titled album,
Jay-Z’s The Black Album,
Josh Rouse’s Country Mouse, City House,
Norah Jones’s Not Too Late,
The Hold Steady’s Almost Killed Me,
Paolo Nutini’s These Streets,
Patti Scialfa’s Play It As It Lays,
Silverchair’s Young Modern,
Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight,
Pinback’s Autumn of the Seraphs,
The Album Leaf’s Into the Blue Again,
The Perishers’ Victorious,
Mike Viola’s Just Before Dark,
St. Vincent’s Marry Me,
Feist’s The Reminder,
Rocky Votolato’s The Brag & Cuss,
Prinzhorn Dance School’s self-titled album,
Todd Snider’s The Devil You Know,
Todd Snider’s East Nashville Skyline,
and Songs: Ohia’s The Electric Magnolia and Co.

Some of this music was not very “rich,” yet all of it was still stimulating and interesting to me to different degrees. I make this list to illustrate one main point: Music is not something that is a passive subject in my life, but rather an active and living subject. If it weren’t, there is no way I could absorb nearly 40 albums of music in two weeks considering my schedule. Music, for me, is the roommate that never moves out.

How does this relate to our investigation of song, you ask? You mentioned that what you’re hoping we can accomplish, as well as offer to others, is to find a casual way of talking about music with some degree of depth. I think this is a great goal for us. I must say, I feel one step in the process of achieving this ability to engage in “conversations that raise bars” is to be educated about our subject. Should we not start with a critical evaluation of ourselves, and ask the question, “Just how educated are we on this subject of song?”

When I was back in Minneapolis last month working on recording some of my own music, as well as recording piano to some of my friend Gary’s material, I had a couple opportunities for casual music conversation with the recording session orchestrator, another friend, Dan Schultz. I played a variety of stuff that I wanted him to hear, and amongst other artists (Jon Brion, Ron Sexsmith, Feist immediately come to mind as stuff I know I played), I played him Josh Ritter’s Hello Starling and reiterated that Ritter is, in my opinion, worth a more in depth listen down the line. A couple weeks after I had gotten back home, I got a voicemail from Schultz saying that after listening to The Animal Years, he thought my insistence that he should listen to Ritter was right on, a “very good education.”

Should we not start with a critical evaluation of ourselves, and ask the question, ‘Just how educated are we on this subject of song?'”

Would that example qualify as something that, through music, operated on both a casual level as well as a level of some degree of depth? I find it invigorating that conversations like these happen throughout my life, and that’s why I’ve been so welcoming of this idea of an ongoing dialogue between the two of us.

I’ll be back to talking about specific music examples in my next letter, and I welcome those conversations whole-heartedly. I’d love to get to talking about some examples of Ben Folds’ lyrics, hash out our stances on him, among many other artists.


Jean Bethke Elshtain

I think you see a lot of human potential in music, as I do, which is probably one reason it interests us both. I will close with a quote from an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain entitled “Judge Not?”

My son is an aspiring poet and he finds increasingly depressing the many moments, whether in class or out, when a poem that is weak in execution and flat in evocative power is embraced as something “real” and important because it speaks about the poet’s own undigested experiences, which by definition can never be assessed and criticized. In other words, the self-referential prejudices of our time swamp a cooler set of criticisms and judgments, and wind up making a triumph of something rather petty. In the process, the work of those young men and women who really struggle with the form and language and getting it right is trivialized, their accomplishments discounted. In some circles, if you carefully and precisely criticize a weak poem, you may face censure because the poem and its author’s psyche or identity are at one; thus, you find yourself in the position of criticizing her (or his) life, given the utter collapse of one into the other, when what you really want to do is to explain why you think this isn’t a very good poem.

As I hope you can guess, this quote has weighed heavily on my mind thanks to an attempt to recognize, criticize, imagine, and embrace your perspective. You’ve definitely gotten my wheels turning, my good friend.

– jonathan

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Jon,

You say, “Since our unique advantage over other animals is, as Sagan calls it, ‘our characteristically human thought,’ wouldn’t that make any song that provokes human thought something worth ‘the bother’?”

I will answer you, but I have to point out that I think you’ve excluded the most important part of that quote. The complete quote, again, is as follows:

Other animals have advantages over us—in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought—characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out.

You ask, “Wouldn’t that make any song that provokes human thought…worth ‘the bother’?” I think the answer is yes. Crucially, though, we must think the song through. Reading parts of Daniel Levitin‘s book and Carl Sagan’s The Dragon’s of Eden, I’m inclined to think that music can actually change our brains and minds. Sagan points to research suggesting that our environment and education physically alter our brains. The better our environment and education, the more synapses and thicker cerebral cortex we’ll form. This may make it easier for us to learn more complex things. The evidence I’ve seen so far indicates to me that any song we hear, by virtue of it interacting with our brains, has a profound impact on our brains and minds.
A song can make us better at being passive and weak-brained, or it can make us better at being active and strong-brained. I likely could listen exclusively to Brittney Spears for my entire life without ever thinking about what she’s singing about. I wonder how different I would be from a rabbit or cactus, though. Both of those organisms can be penetrated by sound waves. What they can’t do is think through what those sound waves mean.

I likely could listen exclusively to Brittney Spears for my entire life without ever thinking about what she’s singing about. I wonder how different I would be from a rabbit or cactus, though.”

You say, “I would contend that [any song is] worth someone’s time, or it would never have been created in the first place….”

What does that mean? I’ll rephrase your statement: “Songs are worthwhile because people make them.” People also make murder, Jon. Thankfully, most songs aren’t murder. (I say “most” because there’s a song out there called “My Humps.” Most people who’ve listened to it have experienced exploded brains.) Again, I think songs are only especially worthwhile when people think them through. Murder seems to happen when old parts of our brains overcome the newer ones. I will not propose that people stop creating music that I consider empty. I will propose that people think through empty songs. I have faith in the ability of people to discard bad ideas when confronted with better ones. Life is complicated. There’s a lot to think about. Maybe a lot of people don’t have time to think through music because they’re dealing with their income tax debt. Well, it seems to me that music can, if we let it, help people deal with their income tax debt better. (Don’t try to bring The Beatles’s “Taxman” into this. It’s the lyrical equivalent of looking at a tax bill and saying, “Damn it!”)

I have faith in the ability of people to discard bad ideas when confronted with better ones.”

You say,

I feel one step in the process of achieving this ability to engage in “conversations that raise bars” is to be educated about our subject. Should we not start with a critical evaluation of ourselves and ask the question, “Just how educated are we on this subject of song?”

I don’t know, Jon. How educated should one have to be on the subject of song to talk about it intelligently? You seem to indicate some of your credentials by mentioning how much music you listen to and how much it means to you. You even have the extra advantage of being an active and, I think, talented songwriter/performer. As you know, I’m a songwriter as well and a perpetual tinkerer with recording technology. As with my education in other areas, I don’t see my musical education as ever ending. I think we’ve got a suitable level of relevant education between us. That should be helpful. What I think is better, though, is that we’re both interested in drawing people who may not have our musical knowledge or experience into our conversation.

When you recommended to Schultz that he listen to The Animal Years, I don’t think you were doing a lot to raise that conversational bar. Why do I think this? Well, from what you say, you didn’t actually have a conversation about Ritter. You say only that you mentioned an album that you like to someone you’ve known for nearly a decade now and whose tastes you’re probably fairly familiar with. What was the “good education” that Schultz got? Did he explain this to you? I want to be educated as well.

I like the Elshtain quote and I think it’s very relevant to the discussion. (I won’t get into what appears to be Elshtain’s conservative feminism.) I keep returning to one of Jack Handey’s deep thoughts where he seems to parody the same attitude that Elshtain is talking about: “Instead of having ‘answers’ on a math test, they should just call them ‘impressions,’ and if you got a different ‘impression,’ so what, can’t we all be brothers?”

How educated should one have to be on the subject of song to talk about it intelligently?”

No seems to me to be the answer. “Having impressions” sounds a lot like “having faith” to me. You might remember faith from such roles as the basis for man’s 2000-year-long (longer for some) belief in an earth-centered view of the cosmos and for helping to lead us to and keep us in the Dark Ages. That’s why we have to rely on logic (something human beings are best at) and thinking things through. Most human beings are still using at least vestiges of Dark Ages thinking. A good portion of that portion of people will find it nearly impossible to be brothers with each other.

I will close with news that I’ve decided to abandon “rich” as a song adjective and suggest that we just analyze songs. I will also now analyze Josh Ritter a bit. This is from an October 14th, 2007 interview on NPR where Ritter is on to promote The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter:

[James Hattori]
How do you know, when you write a song and you perform it, that the message gets through?

[Josh Ritter]
You know, I think that it’s—that’s just something that I don’t think about too much. I think that you—if you’re too worried about the message getting through, you say things too plainly and a song just gets kind of leaden. I feel that…any song that lasts, lasts because it has a multiplicity of meanings. And that’s what’s really cool. ‘Cause I don’t want anybody in a song telling me what exactly the song’s about while they’re singing it.



a clip from “Girl in the War”

Here’s the first song from Ritter’s The Animal Years. It’s called “Girl in the War.” As I did with Ryan Adams’s “September,” I will try to find a literal meaning where possible. This song seems to demand that we look outside of the text for meaning, though. The first verse:

Peter said to Paul “You know, all those words that we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go”

So, Peter and Paul wrote some words somewhere. Peter doesn’t think much of those words. Perhaps Ritter is writing about an unsuccessful board game Peter and Paul made. Are these the Biblical figures Peter and Paul? Are they talking about rules they wrote in the Bible? As far as I can figure out, Peter didn’t write anything in the Bible. Some quotes are attributed to him. Here’s a heartwarming exchange between Peter and Jesus made public in 1975 in the New Testament-era Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Is that one of Ritter’s “rules of the game”?


Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, respectively

“But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun”

It seems pretty unlikely that Ritter could be talking about anyone but the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy here because he uses their family names (“Stan and Ollie” likely would’ve had the same effect, though). Does Ritter mean that talking to God is now like Laurel begging Hardy for a gun? Does that mean that the person talking to God is Laurel and that God is Hardy? What does that mean? How many people know a Laurel and Hardy routine? Was a routine involving gun-begging common in their act? Is Ritter saying that talking to God is comedic?

“I got a girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done”

Laurel and Hardy made their last movie in 1951. This could indicate that the “war” Ritter is referring to is WWII? Is Ritter referring to all war? Perhaps he is referring to the war on terror?

Paul said to Petey “You gotta rock yourself a little harder;
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”
And I got a girl in the war, Paul the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

The meaning of “You gotta rock yourself a little harder” has to depend on what definition we attribute to “rock.” It seems to make the most sense if we go with, “to rouse to excitement.” Is this the dove as a symbol of peace? In that case, Ritter might be saying, “pretend peace is urging you to move to action.” That seems contradicted by “the only thing I know to do is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through.” One line is a call to action, the other is an acknowledgment of powerlessness.

Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom
And the angels fly around in there, but we can’t see them
And I got a girl in the war, Paul I know that they can hear me yell
If they can’t find a way to help, they can go to Hell
If they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to Hell

Ritter (or his narrator) seems to be clearly upset with the angels. It seems safe enough to assume that the “kingdom” is Heaven. The preceding verse may come out as the only one that makes any sense.

Paul said to Petey “you gotta rock yourself a little harder;
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire”
But I got a girl in the war, Paul her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain
Sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain

It’s unclear whether “But I got a girl in the war” is from the point of view of Ritter, a narrator created by Ritter, or Peter (Petey). “Her eyes are like champagne / They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain.” Is she crying? Is she crying in the morning? Why not at night too? Does the narrator feel intoxicated when he looks into her eyes?

In the same interview I cited above, Ritter compares songwriting to navigating a labyrinth. I feel the comparison is also apt for interpreting these particular lyrics. Ritter calls navigating this labyrinth “fun.” I call it tedious and wonder what the point is. Ritter says, “I feel that…any song that lasts, lasts because it has a multiplicity of meanings.” I would settle for one meaning. I don’t think Ritter gives me that. This song seems, like so many others, to fit into the category of masquerading as profundity.

I find the song pleasing to listen to. I find Ritter’s voice pleasant. I like the instrumentation. The main riff through the song sounds like a guitar with a capo. Without much effort, I’m able to reproduce the riff fairly closely by putting a capo on the 8th fret and playing an arpeggio on a G major formation. If I play an E minor formation and C major formation periodically, I can play along with the recording almost like I belong there.

There might be some kind of organ sustaining a few notes throughout. A piano comes in around the third verse. I’m a little bad at identifying drums, but I can say that they build like the instrumentation. They’re fairly sparse until the third verse when there’s more crashing cymbal used. The final verse seems to consist of Ritter’s vocals over a reversed version of that opening capo-ed guitar riff.

It seems a shame to waste a pretty song on what I’ve identified as .

What do you think, Jonathan?

– clifton

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Paul,

If I were able to narrow down “what I think” to a line or two, we’d all be the better for it. The following is a mere molecule from the body of my thoughts, another glaring example of Time-consumption in Brevity’s rightful seat:

I love you like a brother, Clifton, and I enjoy the fact that we haven’t, to this point, allowed blatant disagreements to jeopardize our mutual love and respect for one another.

Some dude named Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” We share the view that our education, in music and all other subjects, is an ongoing one. I know you have educated me throughout the years, as many people with whom I’ve made lasting connections have, and continue to do. We seem to be mutually interested in developing, within our personal concepts of self and soul alike, educated minds. This could, according to Aristotle, explain our friendship. He called friendship “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

My point about songs having an inherent value solely in their own creation was the value of uniquely human thought that goes into that process. People do kill each other, but so do grizzly bears. I don’t see grizzly bears writing much music, regardless of its quality. I have to work hard in reminding myself of the inherent value in things that are outright terrible from a critical or artistic standpoint. The spectrum of quality in music includes things I don’t choose to spend too much time with (see my “Kill Us All Now: Seagal Plays Bookends” for a good peek at the bottom-of-the-barrel-of-human-potential).

Yes, Seagal has a song called “Talk to My Ass.” No, I’m not going to ask that we spend much time on it. I think people like Ritter though, who are (in my opinion) writing great and literate music deserve their merits be accounted for.

"People do kill each other, but so do grizzly bears. I don’t see grizzly bears writing much music, regardless of its quality."

Here are a couple Ritter quotes about The Animal Years that could shed some light on his meanings, and maybe even thicken our cortexes a bit:

The word “apocalypse” means unveiling, you know, not just the end of the world. In some of the real apocalyptic literature like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, or even Gravity’s Rainbow or Slaughterhouse Five, a person goes through a long series of trials and tribulations, seeing things and coming back with new knowledge and maybe new warnings. In the past year, we didn’t have to go anywhere to see those kinds of things. We all have TV. We all can see what’s going on and there’s no one who can say it’s a good thing. “Thin Blue Flame” is a trip through what everybody can see. I was just writing down the images I saw as they came to me. I worked on it for a long time; my notebook was filled with “Thin Blue Flame” for a year and a half.

The title had been in my head for a while and I tried to convince myself it wasn’t the one I should use, but for me it was perfect. I was thinking back on the period of my life leading up to this record and my experience up to that point was, you get up, you start to play music and you tour. It’s such a strange life style. In a lot of ways I felt like I became this thing, half-man, half-animal, out in the middle of the country, playing. It was so bizarre. Everyone else is living their lives and doing things that are bit more normal …Man, after a year and a half on the road, 16 months of touring for Hello Starling, I became the proto-hunter-gatherer, going out wherever and doing stuff and trying to find a way to make sense in a human way. But, really, in the end, you’re just trying to get food in your mouth. I think back on that time and feel definitely, those were my animal years.

Hmm…he sounds like a pretty thoughtful guy to me. Why would a thoughtful, seemingly halfway intelligent guy like Ritter put out such a pile of shallow thoughtless garbage? I guess we’ll never know. If you want my personal opinion though, there is education to be found in this artist. Life is not entirely literal and empirical. In my view, if it were, there would be no room in our existence for part of what Sagan included in his definition of characteristically human thought: “[the ability to] imagine events yet to occur.

This last tidbit from Ritter sums up, for me, the beauty and complexity of this album, both sonically and lyrically:

When asked to describe his work The Animal Years, Ritter called it “a silent film—a mysterious old movie reel unearthed somewhere—about America today.”

If you can’t hear the human effort put forth in Ritter’s work, my condolences. In that case, you would truly be missing out on one of my favorite artists. The thing I was referring to as “educational” about my encounter with Schultz was that my seed of interest, and minimal education on my own part, induced another human to seek out information about it and end up seeing some of the value that I do in it. He read up some about him, sought out The Animal Years, and referred to the process as “educational”. Is that not valuable in some way? Maybe I didn’t have a conversation that raised any bars with him, but it was a reinforced human connection through the medium of music. I wouldn’t fuck with a bear on my dumbest day, but I wouldn’t want to be one for a second, considering just how much my own abilities to reason, imagine, and create have made me grateful for this life.

Critic Michael Hill had this to say about The Animal Years:

These songs represent perhaps the most eloquent expression to date from any pop artist of the physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of the Iraqi war and the divided state of our nation. “Girl in the War” is as stark and stirring as “Born in the U.S.A.,” and much more immediate. Ritter explores the deepening dread of the Middle East conflict, imagining his words as an epistle to St. Paul: “I’ve got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne/they sparkle, bubble over and in the morning all you’ve got is rain.”

Was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” stark, or stirring? What separates a song like that or an artist like Springsteen, from a song like “Our Country” or an artist like Mellencamp, if anything? Does this quoted line from Ritter make any sense to the part of your mind that enables your imagination, as opposed to the just the portion of it that is empirical and literal? I would have to agree with Ritter to some degree about meaning in song. Sometimes, I don’t want direct meaning spelled out to me. Not all artists are talented enough to write simply, and some are too talented to. I think at this point, I feel good enough in standing behind Ritter’s body of consistently very good work, to say he is, in all probability, an artist of the latter sort. He can write the simple song and the complex song alike, and for me he has always remained interesting, literate, and poetic along the way. But then again, I’ve listened to him for about six years now, so I’ve had time to develop plenty of bias in his favor, should that happen to be what you would propose is clouding my view of his shallow, although often pretty, song(s?).

If we’re more than just animals because we can not only reason, but imagine, I think developing our imagination alongside our logic and reason is not only important, but entirely vital on our quest in continually educating these minds of ours. The thing that I think a lot of empirically-minded people tend to neglect is just how much importance lies in the imagined. Virtually every science is based on some hypothesis alongside the undeniably crucial data. The methods we use collect data would never be possible without that intangible part of our existence, the part that imagines things not yet created and focuses on the “what if” and “why not.” Our species has created language to communicate more effectively than jumping up and down, crying, or poking each other with sticks when we need or want something. We have the ability to imagine and implement entire languages, a potential we reached long ago, and have repeated many times over. Art is just imagination recorded in various forms, albeit sometimes not all that imaginative. In an effort not to completely sidestep responding to some of your analysis, let me say that I think “Girl in the War” is largely about the war in Iraq.

I think I was criticized fairly rigorously last time around (in our look at Ryan Adams’s “September”) for reading into the meaning of a line, but I’m still having a hard time understanding the harm in doing that. It may be easier to call up Josh Ritter directly and say, “Hey man, what the fuck are you trying to say in that pretty song of yours, if anything?” but I really enjoy taking the time to think about these things for myself. Would you call me imaginative, forgiving, or outright foolish to look at a line like “Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire” and think it could be a reference to our “bringing of peace” to the rest of this world through our own country’s use of force and military might?

I guess we can either talk to Ritter to find out what he meant, or move our listening efforts to something simpler, more straightforward, and mostly spelled out if that’s what you’d rather we spend time with. That or we could use our imagination, which I’m rarely against since it’s a big part of what is unique about my life versus that of an amoeba.

I want to close this response with one more Ritter quote (in case you were dying for just one more): “The wolf in this record was my reminder to myself that down the path of total conviction you end up just like any other animal that runs in a pack-and that’s not a place I would like to go.”

Your brother Peter (non woman-hating version, ears intact), aka, Jonathan

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“The following is from “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers” by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. It was first published in Parade magazine, April 22, 1990. I include this because I think Druyan’s and Sagan’s view on what makes us human might be helpful:
Other animals have advantages over us—in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought—characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out.
There are roughly 6.6 billion people on earth. We can subtract from those the roughly one billion “irreligious” people. This will give us roughly 5.6 billion spiritually religious people.  These people apparently rely on something called “faith” for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. I optimistically assume that the “irreligious” people aren’t also relying on supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.

Calculations are based on population and religious affiliation information from “Worldwide Adherents of All Religions, Mid-2005” in Encyclopaedia Britannica.*

later changed to “ambiguity”
later changed to “ambiguity”

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