Anatomy of a Song: “If These Walls Could Speak”

I can’t think of very many songwriters whose material runs the gamut from rock-bottom awful to absolutely brilliant, but Jimmy Webb is one of them. His hit “MacArthur Park” is so legendarily bad that Dave Barry’s readers voted it the worst song ever recorded in a 1992 poll. (Of course, this was before Rebecca Black. And if you actually clicked on that link, you’re most welcome.)

But here’s the weird thing: If you keep leafing through Jimmy Webb’s catalogue, you start to come across good songs. Really good songs. Songs that have become standards and been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Art Garfunkel. He’s kind of like the mainstream music world’s Rich Mullins: voice too rough for himself to become a pop star, but has an amazing way with a lyric.

One of those songs is “If These Walls Could Speak.” It’s been recorded at least five times: by Glen Campbell, by Webb himself, by Amy Grant, by Nancy Griffith, and by Shawn Colvin. My personal favorite version is Amy Grant’s, recorded for her 1988 album Lead Me On. (Grant also collaborated on Webb’s excellent Christmas musical The Animals’ Christmas with Art Garfunkel.) I love this version because of her vocal and because of the sparsely lovely piano arrangement, which is closest to Webb’s own vision of the song. It makes the lyrics stand out all the more, which is a good thing, because they’re some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard.

Continue reading “Anatomy of a Song: “If These Walls Could Speak””

Anatomy of a Song: “Ireland,” by Garth Brooks

Last week, I remarked on the pros and cons of Garth Brooks’s stance on digital music (in short, he’s agin it). However, I scraped together a few favorites from Youtube, which happily included the deep album cut “Ireland.” I’m using it to revive my “Anatomy of a Song” series, which was sorely neglected after only one entry.

“Ireland” comes from the 1995 release Fresh Horses, a project that tinkered with a wide palette of sounds. This stirring ode to the Emerald Isle has Garth getting in touch with his inner Irish tenor. It was co-written by Brooks with Stephanie Davis and Jenny Yates in the style of a folk ballad, and it’s one of the best-crafted song lyrics I’ve heard. Aspiring and professional writers alike should take note. Continue reading “Anatomy of a Song: “Ireland,” by Garth Brooks”

Anatomy of a Song: “Come Back to Me”

It’s been a really long time since I did an entry in this series, formerly known as “Poetry in Song,” and I’m not even sure that the folks who seemed interested when I first began it a few years ago are still hanging around. But in case they are, and in case anyone else enjoys reading my rambling about songwriting and would like to explore what makes a song work lyrically with me, here is another installment! Today, we’re picking a song from the world of pop/rock country music: “Come Back to Me” (Artist: Keith Urban, Album: Fuse). This is a heart-wrenching song from the perspective of a man whose love is leaving to chase after things that he knows can’t satisfy her.

Before we dive in, mention must be made of Urban’s ravishing guitar work and the way it just melts into that synth backdrop. True musicianship dat. But I’ll save the full-on Keith fan-girling for another day. Now, on to the lyrics of the song, which was written by Shane McAnnally, Brandy Lynn Clark, and Trevor Joseph Rosen (three members of what I like to call “The Nashville Machine,” aka that faceless throng of writers whom nobody recognizes by name and without whom good and bad pop music alike would grind to a halt). I tucked away three main tips from them.

Continue reading “Anatomy of a Song: “Come Back to Me””

Poetry in Song: “Silver Thunderbird”

Most of us know Marc Cohn as a one-hit wonder for his timeless classic “Walking in Memphis.” In fact, lots of people probably know only the song and not the name of the man behind it, so ubiquitous has it become while Cohn himself languishes in relative obscurity. The truth is, America never fully realized what a gem of a writer it had in Cohn. Those who took time to explore his work more thoroughly would discover that “Walking in Memphis” is just the tip of the iceberg.

One of my favorite lesser-known songs of his is “Silver Thunderbird.” Every time I listen to it, I’m struck by how clean and perfect the poetry is. He takes words you just don’t hear in songs that often, like “Batmobile” or “comb,” and effortlessly turns them into perfect rhymes. There’s not a single fudged or faked rhyme in the whole lyric. Trust me, I’ve listened around, and there are VERY few songs for which I’ve found that to be true.

But the poetry of the lyric isn’t just found in its clever, consistent rhyme scheme. Listen carefully and you’ll find it’s a poignantly understated reflection on the relationship between fathers and sons, and indeed, on life in general. Think about all the shades of meaning in lines like these:

Well you could hardly even see him in all of that chrome
The man with the plan and the pocket comb
But every night it carried him home…

Down the road in the rain and snow
The man and his machine would go…

Me I want to go down
In a Silver Thunderbird…

“It carried him home…,” “I want to go down…,” “rain and snow…” These phrases evoke a wealth of thoughts and associations that go far deeper than the words themselves.

Which, of course, is what good poetry is all about.

Poetry in Song: “If We Answer”

Okay, time for more music. I have at least one reader who wanted more in the Poetry in Song series after I kicked it off a couple months ago. Here is another installment, finally.

Today I’m featuring an intriguing number from Steve Green, off of his excellent album Woven in Time. The sound is uncharacteristically gritty for him (believe it or not, it reminds me just an itty bitty bit of the theme music for LadyHawke, BUT it’s not THAT bad so DON’T STOP READING PLEASE, THANK YOU), but the light rock feel works surprisingly well with the lyrics. Just read them out loud and feel the rhythm. Pause to savor the satisfaction of each perfect rhyme. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it comes close. Written by Doug McKelvey, Phil Naish and Scott Dente (I don’t know who handled the lyrics or if it was a collaborative thing):

He is fierce and He is tender
He’s our judge and our defender
And He calls us to surrender
For He loves us to the core
He is frightening and resplendent
He is present and transcendent
He’s enmeshed and independent
And He cannot love us more

(Chorus)

So He calls our names
And we fear Him for His goodness
For we know He won’t be tamed
So He calls our names
And we wonder if we answer
Will we ever be the same?

He’s a comfort and a terror
A destroyer and repairer
He’s more terrible and fairer
Than our mortal tongues can say
He is hidden and revealing
He’s appalling and appealing [<–arguably the weakest line—just a bit of over-extension]
He’s our wounding and our healing
And He will not turn away

Holy Lamb of God
And He cannot love us more
Holy Lamb of God

He is wild, He is wonder
He is whispering and He is thunder
He is over, He is under
And He suffered for our gain
He’s a comfort and a danger
He’s a father and a stranger
He’s enthroned and in a manger
And He says we’re worth His pain

Listen:

Poetry in Song 101: “Burn Away”

If you hang around here, you’ll occasionally see me grouse about the loss of poetic ear in songwriting. I can get kind of cranky on this particular topic. Well, with this series, I’ll showcase some contemporary songs that are particularly well-crafted from a poetic standpoint. They won’t necessarily be southern gospel songs, just songs that are poetically good.

I’ll start with a song I encountered just yesterday: “Burn Away.” The artist is Bill Cantos, one of the most underrated and gifted musicians out there. He’s a versatile talent, having done extensive work in both Christian and secular music (he’s an accomplished pop/jazz artist). He’s written, arranged and played keys for many names I’m sure most of you would recognize if I started to list them. In the realm of Christian music, Bill has worked with artists like the Imperials, Andrae Crouch, and the Haven of Rest Quartet (with whom he toured and sang through the 90s and 2000s).

Although he writes great pop music (I double dog dare you to listen to “Cool Drink of Water” and not be hooked—a more sublimely perfect summer song, there is not), he’s definitely at his best when writing songs about his faith. This particular song is off an above-par worship album he did with his wife, Maria Falcone (who is herself a highly regarded musician with a dizzying resume) called Embrace the Cross. Bill sings, Maria plays, and I believe they wrote the songs together. The first verse of this song does contain some “fudging” with the rhymes, but the rest of the lyrics are remarkably consistent and show very good poetic imagination.  I’ve never encountered an abccbab pattern in a contemporary song before that I can remember. And of course, it doesn’t hurt anything that the music is gorgeous too. Lyrics:

Burn away my sin, I’m pleading
Fill me with a brand new fire
In this human frame I’m flailing,
Seized with fear and bent on fainting
Lift me from the mire
Flood my body, blood and breathing
You are my desire

Burn away my foolish striving,
Thirsting after mounds of sand
In this desert plain I’ve wandered
While my days and years were squandered
Take me from this land
I want more than just surviving
Vict’ry is at hand

Chorus

Oh burn, burn away the sin that hinders me
Come melt me down and wash me clean
So I will know that I have seen
The fullness of you

Burn away my pride, Lord Jesus
Rain your glory on my soul
Come unearth your Spirit’s treasure,
Grace and peace beyond all measure
I will yield control
Let me live a life that pleases
Please, come make me whole

Listen:

By the way, is it just me, or does Bill’s voice bear an eerie resemblance to Christian singer Scott Krippayne? Not that I’m complaining—always liked Scott’s voice.