These days when I write lyrics they tend to fall into one of three categories. The words are either a direct response to a person/experience (or a manifesto of sorts), a bunch of random brain-spill, or they’re something a little more complicated, sometimes involving things outside the realm of my personal experience and knowledge.
This third way of writing is often the most interesting. Sometimes I’ll read about something and it’ll incubate in my brain for a while, to the point where I’ve almost forgotten about it. Then, when enough related or unrelated ideas have formed around it, the collected information will bubble to the surface, fuse itself together, and a song will happen.
I wrote a song the other day that drew inspiration from some pretty unexpected places, and there was much more thought given to what the song was saying than is usually the case for me. Instead of something I just allowed to happen, there was some actual craft that went into it.
The thought process went something like this.
“I’ll give you a shot and you won’t feel a thing.”
There’s my first line. I have no idea where to go with it. Let’s say the shot is a sedative. Think about the way it would effect the mind and body. I’ll come back to that later.
The immediate question is, who is telling me they’re going to give me a shot? It has to be a woman. As long as I’m me, it’s almost always going to be a woman.
I can’t see her, but I can hear her voice. What does it sound like? Is it round and warm? High and thin? Cold and emotionless? Wry and conspiratorial? Those are all possibilities. Or we could take it somewhere more interesting.
“I’ll give you a shot and you won’t feel a thing.”
Her voice filled the room like a floodlight,
just confident enough to make you feel insecure.
If floodlights could speak, I guess they’d sound like her.
What do I know about floodlights? Not much. But let’s run with that.
A powerful projector on any line.
If you were a floodlight, you’d do just fine.
You’d distribute your glow in an even array.
If you were a floodlight, well, what would you say?
There’s the first verse in the bank. Now I’m thinking the song should be called “Sedatives and Alcohol”. She’s given me a shot of something. I’m drifting away. Where is my mind going? I’m probably thinking of someone from my past. But who?
It has to be a woman. Again. Even if it’s someone who doesn’t really exist.
I knew a girl who was tender and sweet.
I remember her face but not her name.
Her hands were as soft as a cool summer rain.
When it parted my hair…
I like where this is going, but the word “it” feels a little clunky. The rain didn’t part my hair. Her hands did. Singing “they” in recognition of the hands doesn’t feel right either. I’ll just say “she”.
When she parted my hair, I was sugarcane.
Now we’ve moved from floodlight metaphors to sugarcane. Even if it doesn’t make much sense to take that leap, I like it.
What do I know about sugarcane? Nothing. I read up on it a little. What really gets my brain going is learning about how the stuff is harvested. When you harvest sugarcane by hand, the field is set aflame. The fire kills pests and eliminates unnecessary leaves. Then you cut the cane with a knife.
What happens if I’m sugarcane and things take a bad turn? Maybe the rules change.
She set fire to the field to burn the dry leaves.
The stalks and the roots would be safe, you’d assume.
But the flame had a mind and a will of its own.
Now I’m scorched earth where nothing will grow.
I think that’s a pretty solid metaphor for the end of a relationship and having no desire to ever allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone in that way again. I’ve used the phrase “scorched earth” in a song once before, back in “Will Work for Food” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY. In that song it was more of a figurative thing, exaggerating how much heat the hypothetical sun was throwing off. Here the meaning is different.
I’ve read a bit about the “scorched earth policy” as a military tactic. It involves destroying anything that may be helpful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from a section of land. If you’re making your way into their territory, you destroy their assets — food, transportation, anything that could be of any use to them. If they’re coming after you, you destroy your own assets so nothing of yours will be any good to the invading forces.
One of the more interesting examples I’ve found is the Scythian people. They were nomadic herders, using the tactic against King Darius the Great of Persia, circa 500 BC.
When Darius the Great crossed the Black Sea
at the Bosphorus straits with a bridge of boats,
the Scythians drew him deep into their grasslands.
They destroyed their own pastures and poisoned their wells.
While his men were starving and dehydrated, Darius wrote a letter to the Scythian ruler ordering him to fight or surrender. Scythian ruler dude said he would do neither, unless Darius agreed to team up with him in an effort to locate the graves of both of their fathers and destroy them.
That has to be the strangest and most fascinating response to a call to arms I’ve ever heard.
All of these details are worked into the lyrics. Then I cut to describing the loss of consciousness, and we drift into loosely-implied death. “My speech is slurred, my reflexes slow.”
It feels like it works well enough as an ending. I like the way all the things I cared about in more lucid times are dismissed as nothing more than “dead skin” (that sort of cynicism is right up my alley). But the transition back to the first person isn’t very smooth.
After mulling it over for a little while, I’m not so sure this is the way I want to bring things to a close. There are several other lines and turns of phrase I come up with that I’m fond of, but they don’t feel like they quite fit either.
Where do I go from here, then? Maybe I can comment on what the Scythians did without regurgitating too many straight facts and twist it in another direction.
That’s one way to jump from a sinking ship
when you know it just isn’t your day.
No sense in going down with your cargo
when the hull has corroded and rotted away.
“When you know it just isn’t your day” is a pretty bad line any way you slice it. I’ll have to replace it when I think of something better. It works as a placeholder for now, at least. And there doesn’t need to be a rhyme there, since the first half of the verse has broken away from the established rhyme scheme already.
That’s one way to jump from a sinking ship.
Call it abandoned or derelict.
There. That’s a little more interesting.
Now I’m thinking about “ship breaking”, which is the self-explanatory process of breaking down a ship for scrap, as you would with a car. I want to do something with that. At the same time, the longer this goes on, the more disparate places my mind is going to drift, and the more difficult it’s going to get to draw all the threads together in a way that makes some amount of sense as a song. If I return to the metaphorical syntax and meter employed in the second half of the first verse, maybe I can bring things full circle and end in a more poetic way.
If I were a ship, I’d be well past preserving.
If you were a jewel, you’d be had for a song.
My judgment is questionable, my instincts erratic.
These things we knew all along.
The song no longer announces itself as a dying dream or a mess of thoughts before falling into drugged sleep, and “Sedatives and Alcohol” no longer feels like an appropriate title at all. Aside from one or two lines that could use some massaging, now it feels like a finished piece that knows what it’s saying, stronger for ending in a way that’s unresolved. What lives in the middle feeds what lives on either side of it.
And that’s how what started out as something of a drug song ended up touching on light sources, sugarcane, extreme military action, and the death of a marine vessel.
Someone once told me they felt I never gave any of my songs proper endings. I’m not sure about that. I think I let a song tell me where and how it wants to end. How many times have you trailed off mid-sentence in the course of conversation? Sometimes an ellipsis is more effective than a big bold period.