Thursday, August 2, 2012

props: Kyle Ellison on Aesop Rock

Here is a link to Kyle Ellison's review of Aesop Rock's latest piece of perfection, Skelethon (the full album can be listened to right here on YouTube). Ellison demonstrates a mastery in lyrical dissection and analysis, digesting Bavitz's dense essays of song (the full lyrics, printed in the album insert, occupy pages and pages of tiny font, single space text) and presenting the reader with an easy-to-understand guide of some of the major points made on the album like a Sparknotes entry. For some of Bravitz's explanations of his own songs, check out this playlist of brief interview clips.

As always, check out The Quietus for plenty of other great news and reviews about the music community.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Your Grievience" by Daniel Johnston

Ephesians 4:26-27, "Be angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil."

Focusing on the imperatives delivered by the author of Ephesians (not necessarily Paul), Daniel Johnston explicates a few choice passages to explain his own interpretation of the book’s instructions. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances”, (not to be confused with the more succinctly titled “Grievances”, in which Johnston lists grievances against an ex-romance) focuses on several Biblical lines, notably Ephesians 4:19 (“Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness,” compared to “Respect love of the heart over lust of the flesh”) , 4:24 (“And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness,” compared to “Do yourself a favor: become your own savior”), and 4:26 (cited in the epigraph, compared to a really obvious line).

What drew my attention to this song was the fact that Johnston sings “grievience” instead of “grievances,” as the title would have the listener anticipating (grievience is not yet a word recognized by any dictionary, although an internet search reveals it to be rarely used synonymously with grievance). In fact, the cover version by Clem Snide that appears on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered represents a reincarnation of this bearing the modified title “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievience”.

Johnston’s message falls in line with a popular maxim for couples that may have initially developed from the Ephesians passage itself: don’t go to bed angry. (Whether you believe this to be good advice or not, it is a sentiment that has been supported very recently by sleep studies.) His belief in Christianity appears to be unwavering, but these lyrics are much more than a banner wave for dogma; they are simply a plea for people to get along with each other.

The messages presented by these lyrics vary. A rejection of carnal exploration in lieu of emotional love certainly has only tangential relations to the practices of dismissing one’s anger and expressing forgiveness. This loose connection supports the biblical basis for the lyrics: Johnston is much more likely to have written this song strictly out of inspiration from reading the passages in Ephesians than by constructing the theme himself and finding biblical references to incorporate.

It’s when Johnston moves into lines like “And yet if you find yourself in the dark, and you’re left holding the bag” and “Sometimes you might want to give up, but keep that chin up” that the listener encounters Johnston’s unadulterated message of hope. “ ‘Cause you’re gonna find” is the vague, unexplained conclusion that drives his optimism. Find what? He’s not telling, and it may be because he doesn’t know any more than you do, and that is exciting to him.

“Start each day with a clean slate,” he implores. “You’ll feel better if you can shake off all that hate.” Biblical influence aside, Johnston’s train of thought is clear: no one knows what tomorrow may bring. If today was rough, tomorrow could be better, but your attitude can make all the difference. Don’t go into a new day carrying the anger of what affected you yesterday; drop it, “and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll have a brand new feeling and you’ll find yourself healing.”

Don't let the sun go down on your grievances
Respect love of the heart over lust of the flesh
Do yourself a favor: become your own savior

And don't let the sun go down on your grievances

And when you wake up in the morning
You'll have a brand new feeling
And you'll find yourself healing

So don't let the sun go down on your grievances

And yet if you find yourself in the dark
And you're left holding the bag
Then take care of it right away

And don't let the sun go down on your grievances again

Sometimes you might want to give up
But keep that chin up
Cause you're gonna find
You're gonna find

Sometimes you might be alone
But don't feel lonely
'Cause you're gonna find
You're gonna find

So don't let the sun go down on your grievances
Start each day with a clean slate
You'll feel better if you can shake off all that hate
And don't forget to forgive and forget

And don't let the sun go down on your grievances
Don't let the sun go down on your grievances

Respect love of the heart over lust of the flesh
Sing it!
Do yourself a favor: become your own savior

And don't let the sun go down on your grievances

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Up Against the Wall" by Peter Bjorn and John

Original booklet lyrics reprinted below.

The narrative in these lyrics begins very much in the middle of the action (or -- perhaps more fittingly -- inaction). Whatever relationship these two lovers have had, it is ending, and the narrator is only mildly interested. There’s a certain tone of helplessness about the narrator and an air of apathy, while his lover sits on the opposite side of that scale. The relationship has barely been an investment to the narrator, but he didn’t anticipate it ending. When she surprises him at home and brings the breakup confrontation right to him, he is forced into a realization (your slap was like a wake-up call) that a relationship requires dedication that he isn't ready to commit.

One of the more captivating attributes of this song is the way it uses instrumental sounds and space to emphasize the narrative of this song. The sounds begin with a peaceful, droning synthesizer leading into a lackadaisical, plunky harmonization between guitar and bass.

As the narrator begins his address, the sounds drop out to emphasize a minimal drum tap behind a simple bass strum. The lyrics illustrate the narrator's unavoidable tone of apathy as he shrugs "I guess I should have caught your call," matching the musical depression of melody.

When the second verse begins to highlight the confrontational conversation, the guitar provides a supporting flitter of clear, jangling notes.

Third verse: chaos. A distorted minor chord reverberates on the guitar in a sudden, jolting discord as a patter of electronic snares and cymbals emulates the splashes and crash of a glass shattering on an apartment floor, emphasizing the lover's slap. And the wobbly guitar is here to stay, as the voice of the cold hands and trembling bones.

This is where the lyrics end, but we're only three minutes and sixteen seconds into a song that stretches just over seven minutes. In other words, this story isn't over yet.

How do the remaining four minutes inform us of the rest of the narrative? As the third verse fades out, the instruments continue to be as frantic as they were when they accompanied the lyrics, and the layers of riffs build into a vocalist's distant howl of "ooooooo." Could this be the shocked sound of realization? The emotional epiphany during which one surges with regret? A childlike wail of self-discomfort? Or perhaps simply a profound sigh of defeat?

The lyrics appear to be similar in style to a post-breakup letter of apology, wherein the author is unable to focus on his addressee, and instead pleas his own violation: "You don't know how it feels, / you got me up against the wall." This narrator doesn't know how he should feel. Before this confrontation, he had felt a complete absence of emotion about this relationship: it existed, and therefore he was satisfied with it. But this argument shakes him like he's snapping out of tunnel-vision as he's blowing through a stop sign ("bones are trembling, hands are cold"). He's so surprised that he can't process all these new factors to consider, and he retreats ("Maybe we could make this work, / but I just had to leave before it's getting worse.")

The final round of lyrics moves promptly into the aftermath: the relationship has collapsed, and our narrator reflects with an untimely development of emotional attachment (and, now, severance). "The bruises on the face don't bother [him] at all," but the intangible damage is painful. As if in shock, his bones are still trembling, and his hands are still cold. His sorrowful conclusion is this: it would have been better to drag the argument out than to abandon it ("it's almost that I wish you had me up against the wall"). As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and this narrator laments not paying enough attention to the situation he had been in.

But, as it goes with post-relationship depression, the time will drone by and reflection will draw out the saddest thoughts and a typhoon of what-ifs, like the climax of sounds in the second, instrumental half of the song, before the painful memories drop out of frame: first the guitar, then the drum machine, then the synth.

I guess I should have caught your call,
but I just had to waste the phone, forget it all.
Bones are trembling, hands are cold,
you don't know how it feels,
you got me up against the wall.

Maybe we could make this work,
but I just had to leave before it's getting worse.
I don't know what you came here for,
it's almost that I wish we hadn't met at all.

Your slap was like a wake-up call,
the bruises on my face don't bother me at all.
Bones are trembling, hands are cold,
it's almost that I wish you had me
up against the wall.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"I Want to Be Well" by Sufjan Stevens

Since the lyrics to this song are not included in the album liner, I will be relying on transcriptions provided by songmeanings and The lyrics provided on these two webpages differ slightly, but I have adjusted the lyrics provided above to represent what I believe to be the most correct interpretation.

The theme for much of this album is derived from Stevens' perception of Royal Robertson's artwork. Lyrically, it would not be much of a stretch to assume that Stevens' theme extended to include a interpretation of Robertson, as that would strike a vein closer to what has propelled the lyrics of works like Come On! Feel The Illinoise!, his most widely recognized album. The bandcamp description of the album, however, tells us that the album has a "preoccupation with Sufjan himself. The album relinquishes the songwriter’s former story-telling techniques for more primal proclamations..." and that "Sufjan has stripped away the fabric of narrative artifice for a more primitive approach." We should assume, then, from an analytical standpoint, that the lyrics here focus on Stevens, even if they are tinged with influence from the works or life of Royal Robertson.

Before the lyrics begin, the title has already indicated an issue: the narrator is unwell. What, then, is the affliction? As with most Stevens lyrics, religion casts a shadow in the song, and, as indicated by the bandcamp description, the album focuses thematically on conflict. Perhaps, the conflict most accurately in focus here is Stevens' oft-admitted differentiation between spirituality and religion. A motif throughout his music, it comes to a head when Stevens declares, "I'm not fucking around."

Religion is often a topic of address in interviews with Stevens, and these lyrics serve as a rebuttal calling into question the importance of knowing or declaring one's religion in light of spirituality. He takes issue not only with those who would deride him for believing in an ideology so often at odds with science (highlighted with the ultimatum "pill or demon"), but also with fundamental Christians who would condemn him for his liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine.

"I don’t think the principles have changed....but I think the fundamentals, it’s really just about love," Stevens says in a 2010 interview with Jeremy Allen, published on The Quietus. But that doesn't mean that love is always easy ("And I forgive you even / As you choke me that way ", especially when your beliefs are attacked by two contesting parties who both view you as lukewarm ("They surround me, all sides"). Perhaps years of interviewers and fans being focused on Stevens' religious beliefs has worn him down, and he wants everyone to know he's "not fucking around" anymore. In the Quietus interview, after being asked about tolerance of other religions, Stevens asserts, "All I can account for is myself and my own belief and that’s a pretty tall order just to take account of myself. I can’t make any claims about other religions."

So what does all this mean for that crucial, first verse? Why does this song begin in media res, and seemingly so near a conclusion with that ominous opening? The verse is designed to bring to mind the irrelevance of accurate perception in regards to continuing existence. If you are isolated in a room where a bed rises, can you expect someone to believe this thing that you cannot show them? Does it matter if the bed rises if you are sleeping on it? or will you just continue sleeping? Does it matter if the people you are observing are photographs or real? Aren't the people in photographs real? If so, aren't real people photograph-ic? Does it matter if the story someone tells you actually happened or if it's all an exaggeration? If you weren't there, how is it provable? All of this points to a New Historical view of existence, specifically one in which existence should be treasured regardless of what conceptual schemas people place around it, because different perceptions will always form a parallax, regardless of the object's actual position. This is part of Stevens' plea to humanity: we cannot all agree, so let's not stress ourselves out about it. "I'll find sleep, I'll find peace / or in death you'll sleep with me." However existence ends is irrelevant, so let's focus on living happily now. The song is a declaration of resolve: I don't want to be upset, "I want to be well."

To think that I would die this time
Isolated in the room where the bed rises
Photographic ordinary people are everywhere
Extraordinary histories, ordinary histories, ordinary histories

I'll find sleep, I'll find peace
Or in death you'll sleep with me

To figure that it was my fault
Or so I've come to realize life is not about
Love with someone (ordinary people are everywhere)
Extraordinary people are, ordinary people are, ordinary people are

Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn
Illness is watching, waiting its turn

Did I go at it wrong?
Did I go intentionally to destroy me?
I'm suffering in noise I'm suffering in (touching ordinary body)
The burning from within the burning from with (ordinary hysteria)
I could not be at rest, I could not be at peace (extraordinary hysteria)

So do yourself a good, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes
Or do yourself a favor, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes

Illness likes to prey upon the lonely, prey upon the lonely
When it bites, oh, I would rather be dead, I would rather be fine

I want to be well, I want to be well
I want to be well, I want to be well

And I forgive you even
As you choke me that way
With the pill or demon
And the shrouded shalom
Under conversation
In tremendous weight of
A crowd of ages outside
Dressed for murder

I'm not fucking around
I'm not, I'm not, I'm not fucking around

And shall I kiss you even as you take me that way?
With the pill or demon as my body changes
Apparitions gone awry
They surround me, all sides
But from within I see it, unholy changes

I'm not fucking around
I'm not, I'm not, I'm not fucking around

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Microsoft Songsmith

I refuse to allow this, my first post, to be saturated with seriousocity. I dislike stuffy addresses of introduction, and will allow this blog to unfold itself naturally without being forced too much as it develops. Therefore, let us please tune in our first analysis of lyrical content to the matter an aging Microsoft commercial uberjingle.

This video advertises a magnificently exaggerated piece of music production software titled Microsoft Songsmith, and it contains some real lyrical gems. Please consider the following exemplary:

Well I used to struggle in the dark
but now no more
with glow in the dark towels
the towels light the way

If lyrical analysis is a hunger, and lyrics are food, then this song is completely Bertie Botts.