September 17th, 2011
Thing a Week 50: Pull the String
This appears to be about a famous person with a terrible secret. It’s not about anyone in particular as far as I know. Maybe it’s about you – Tom Cruise! Or you – John Hodgman! It kind of reminds me of Big Bad World One, mostly because of the A/E ambiguity in the verse. Believe it or not, that acoustic riff in the verse is an idea that’s been floating around in my head since I was about 17 – it’s a relief to finally get that one out the door. Who’s next!
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: I am listening now to this song for the first time in five years - I’ve never played this one live, haven’t really thought about it since the day I uploaded it. Love that E over A thing. I am realizing now it reminds me of the piano lick between verse couplets in the Donald Fagen song “New Frontier” (oops, sorry Donald). Mix needs a lot of help, I seem to have layered myself into muddy territory during the pre choruses. Whoa, right, forgot about this bridge - what the? Abrupt, chopped off ending for extra drama, got it.
OK. Some good and bad here. On the plus side, I think most of the music is coming from an original place, or at least I don’t hear the endless parade of standard JoCo tricks I usually resort to when I’m out of ideas. Maybe that’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve heard this song that I don’t even remember how to play it right now, but the chord changes sound kind of fresh but catchy, which is the whole point of a pop song. I like the textural change-ups a lot, the way it gets big and small and loud and quiet. I was ashamed of the bridge the first time I heard it again, but listening a second time I think it’s kind of nice - it’s all new territory within the song, and I think the buildup thing works pretty well with the noisy guitars and everything. All of that stuff sounds to me like at least I was still inventing things at this point. Guitars are not awful. Lead vocal performance actually has a nice vibe to it, as if I cared about what I was singing, which is not always something I am able to capture when I’m singing into a microphone.
The biggest problem for me is the lyrics. I fell into the classic trap where the song is just about one thing and every line is just another way to describe that thing in a not very interesting way. Those kinds of songs can certainly work, but this one centers on a pretty nonspecific and low stakes idea, and it simply doesn’t generate much heat. Also, there are a bunch of phrases in there that sound a little pat to me: “they all want in,” “underneath your skin,” “call your lawyer.” It sounds like a Glen Frey song from 1984, where you’re “in the night” and this or that thing is “dangerous” because something is happening “in your heart” or maybe “on the streets of this city.” Oy.
I’ve written a lot of songs like this in my life, ones that should be good but are not because they lack some essential unnameable thing. This is the one you leave off the album, or you put aside for a while and then try re-writing later once you have starved it of enough attention that it’s ready to play ball. With more time I might have solved the problem by finding something personal to write about - not me necessarily, any person would do (I know tons of secrets about ALL SORTS of famous people). As it is, most of it sounds like me filling up space until the writing is done, rather than being compelled to tell a story or explore a character that legitimately interests me. You don’t have to get mad to write an angry song, but it does help to think about a time when you WERE mad and play off the details. Specificity makes things interesting, even if it’s secret specificity that nobody else will understand but you. Sometimes especially if it’s secret specificity - am I right, Charles R. in Santa Fe?