Sunday, December 9, 2012

How to Write a Song

As a listener, lyrics are vital to me; I will listen to boring instrumentation if the language is good, but luckily with the Weakerthans, it is no chore. I would consider them a literary band or at least an educated band (the lead singer has a song from his career as a solo performer titled "When I Write My Master’s Thesis"). The constructions of these phrases shows a deep knowledge of language and rhetorical devices without seeming forced, no quadrisyllabic words, which itself is five syllables. The song “Left and Leaving,” off the album of the same name, is confident in its own intelligence and cleverness, so much that it appears natural, not “look at me” showy, but a humble and well-written tune that should be the rule, not the exception, for bands of this nature.
But why is this merely an exception? The song lacks a chorus, or really any kind of refrain that would make it stick in the listener’s ear. It’s what some would term a “grower.” The song is not catchy. On one end you have the audience, which looks for something to hold onto from a track, something that immediately grabs them, and on the other you have the artist trying to say what they wanted to. A song like “Left and Leaving,” does not offer the listener something immediate. The patient will be rewarded, but the typical listener who is looking for something to grab them will move on to something else. In order to make money, however, the Weakerthans must do something that stands out, something that people will want to revisit to. This is the paradox of indie bands. Allegedly, they do it for the love of music, but money is necessary to continue pursuing it. The Weakerthans have made a name for themselves by focusing on something that in popular music is all too often overlooked, the words. In my opinion there are two categories of music: that to dance to and that to shout to. As listeners we require both, and the Weakerthans play to their strengths by writing tunes that the listener can relate to.
The opening line utilizes personification and parenthesis, a device that usually indicates an aside, to state that, “My city’s still breathing (but barely it’s true).” The ideas of cities breathing is nothing new, it could even be considered a cliché, but here, the writer flips it on its head to show dramatic change within the city, not that it is like a living organism. The use of parenthesis works in tandem with the personification to create an image of a changing city, the aside, sung like an afterthought or contemplation, or like a moment of self consciousness experienced by Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.
The image of the city is buffered in the line that follows, “with buildings gone missing like teeth,” a unique metaphor, as in one I have not heard before. This simile is more than just a pretty comparison, it has depth and meaning. Teeth as we all know are there one minute and gone the next. There is no long process of change, it is either in or it is out. And as the song pushes forward we realize that it is because the speaker is just returning, having been gone for some time. With this context the teeth simile makes perfect sense: when he had left, the buildings were there, when he returned, they were not. The diazeugma that follows, “I’m back with scars to show/ back with the streets I know” is what lets us on that the speaker had left and that he, like the city, is also different.
Back in town the speaker attends a get together of old acquaintances. He sings, “The stain in the carpet, this drink in my hand, the strangers whose faces I know.” Here the writer implements climax by preceding the most important detail (and most telling) with two concrete details that help us understand where the speaker is. The first two set the scene and third tells us everything we need to know about it, a quick onetwothree. The important detail, the final punch, “the strangers whose faces I know,” is also presented as an oxymoron.  An oxymoron draws the reader’s attention, makes them meditate on what is being said. Here it is: I do not really know these people anymore, but I recognize them. At first it does not make sense, but upon thinking it over it is something immediately applicable. The theme of lonliness is yet again amplified by the use of a rhetorical device.
The writer contrasts the sudden transition of returning home with the drawn out process of a break up, how smoke still lingers after the fire has been doused. He sings: “Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me: a blanket, some matches, this pain in my chest, the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away.” This passage sees the writer use amplification, expanding on the original thought of what his lover gave him. It starts off innocently enough with a few sentimental things and then delves into the agonies that come to fill your head when left alone like “this pain in my chest…and every birthday card I threw away,” assuming that the cards, like the common idea of photographs, are being discarded because of who sent them.
The rhetorical devices here all serve the purpose of the underlying idea. They are not fights drawn out for the sake of a show; they are the short quick jabs that still knock your ass to the ground. This is what good creative writing is: the rhetorical devices and language serve what the writer is trying to get at, the truth lying just under what is said. The writer of this song is an expert craftsman because to see what they did and how, you really have to look, otherwise, it’s all the same to you. You would never even know that they were implementing diazeugma or climax or amplification. The best kinds of writing are those that do not draw attention to the writing, they draw attention to what is being said. 

-Chad Nickerson
To hear the song click here.

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