Music As Reading: Mixtape XII, Offensive Narratives, by Spring Offensive
Yo man. – Yo.
Open up man. – Whayou want man?
My girl just caught me. – You let her catch you?
I don’t know how I let this happen. – With who?
The girl next door, y’know? – Mmmmmm.
I don’t know what to do. – Say it wasn’t you.
Talk to Spring Offensive for a minute or two and it quickly becomes apparent that their reference points – Nick Cave, iLiKETRAiNS, Antlers, Frank Turner and so on – point to a band-defining interest in the intersections between music and literature, music and reading, music and storytelling. But on their excellent Every Coin, included below alongside some of the aforementioned, that interest crystallises into something more specific: it becomes an issue of narrative, about exploring how a song can approach the framing of a story in a way that words on a page can’t. This is a focus at the heart of what the Music As Reading project is about – posing questions that we’ve seen before a couple of times… Is a utilising of narrative techniques in song merely a piggybacking upon literary tropes, a shortcut to ‘arty’ and ‘literate’ adjectives in reviews (like the ones wot that National get an’ stuff)? Or is it about taking those tropes somewhere different entirely, about creating new routes into (and out of) reading, beginnings, middles and ends? The other end of the following twelve tracks (plus the band’s enjoyably extensive justifications) you’ll hopefully have a better idea.
(*MySpace here. Download their new single, The First Of Many Dreams About Monsters, here. It’s, like, twenty eight minutes long or something. Twenty eight minutes great though. Twenty eight minutes great.*)
The Priest – Joni Mitchell
I’m going to be honest and say that I’m not entirely sure what the plot of this song really is. It’s definitely got a narrative of sorts: a first-person (probably) female protagonist meets a priest in the bar of an airport, and some kind of deeply spiritual link is found to exist between them. She accompanies him back to a house with no roof (thanks to hurricanes) and furniture-free rooms. The two of them share a bottle of wine, and then everything breaks down into a Plath-esque series of impenetrable images which, despite their incomprehensibility, foster a sense of unease over the proto-Jose Gonzalez acoustic guitar part. Is it lyrically cryptic and frankly pretty hard work? Yes. Does it draw you in with the force of the Death Star tractor beam? Absolutely. (Theo Whitworth: Guitarist)
Death of a Salesman – Low
Unusually for Low, this is a completely straightforward set of lyrics about a topic which troubles anyone with any degree of creative ambition. It’s about a guy who wants to write songs for a living but is dissuaded by his cynical friends, who laughingly tell him that ‘the future is prisons and math’. He lets himself be talked over by these people, and consequently relaxes into a life of middle-class suburban tedium, complete with regulation wife-and-kids-and-nine-to-five package. A brilliant slice of shattered dream pie delivered in two and a half minutes. (TW)
Margot Kidder – Million Dead
While thousands of kids dream about being Superman, not many want to wake up as Clark Kent, and although this song is pretty bloody dreary, even for Million Dead, these are some of my favourite lyrics ever, mostly because my childish passion for comic books gets me all excited when someone writes something original about super-heroes. The song basically offers us an image of a depressed, lonely hero, whose bored drawl at the song’s beginning tells us all we need to know: ‘I’ve got X-ray vision and everything’. Although he frequently saves humanity from destruction, this impressive track-record doesn’t change the fact that ‘the morning after each episode, I wake up at home alone,’ and even ‘the government won’t take my calls.’ A far more psychologically interesting portrait of what a super-hero does on his days off than Tobey Maguire getting frustrated at New York traffic preventing him from delivering pizza on time. (TW)
Spencer Perceval – iLiKETRAiNS
I am afraid, as you may have noticed, that I refuse to acknowledge the new and updated spelling offered by I Like Trains, a Leeds-based band that trudge through some of the less known stories in this country’s muddy and peasant-filled past. It is hardly a shamanistic insight to point out the importance of narrative in this track, and indeed most of the band’s older material (dealing with subjects such as chess player Bobby Fischer, Captain Scott, the Bubonic plague and the privatisation of the railways). ILT tell of the death Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, and the subsequent execution of the perpetrator John Bellingham. Beautiful and murky, with its swirling guitars and pounding rhythms, Guy Bannister reels of the lyrics almost as if they were spoken word.
In the same way in which cinemagoers accuse Hollywood of denying them the space to imagine, the narrative in this song is fairly prescribed; there is little opportunity to attempt alternative readings (most of the band’s song-meanings can be found here). However, what ILT do best is create such an evocative and stimulating world – where the characters come to life and the stories no longer seem like glum bookends in GCSE history or a Random Article result on Wikipedia – that you can do nothing else but imagine. However, a bit like eating too much meatloaf, you should probably balance this band with a healthy diet of others, or it can get a bit dry on the palate. (Matt Cooper: Guitarist)
The Curse of Millhaven – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
I won’t drone on about who Nick Cave is. If you don’t know, you need to sort that out. Sorry to sound like a snob, but seriously. Prolific. Bold. Moustache. Australian. Author. Not an actor.
I have too many ‘favourite songs’ by Cave to mention, but this song for me encapsulates what I think he does so perfectly. It is the combination of his playful and intensely dark stories combined with some of the most brilliant wordplay (jamming long ol’ lyrics into phrases where they don’t fit, rhyming ‘terrier’ with ‘bury her’, and the lyric ‘I am a weak and young lady, but I’ve been trying hard lately / ah, fuck it, I’m a monster, I admit it’). This song doesn’t, in my humble opinion, have a complex narrative structure; lyrically it is fairly straightforward, it comes in at a comparatively short 7 minutes (unlike O’Malley’s Bar which clocks in at 16, when all three parts are played back to back) and follows a pretty simple exposition, twist and conclusion. But it is Cave’s delivery of this song that brings the narrative to life. It is his ability to spit and snarl, to shift from one character to another, to become the narrator, to become Loretta, to become himself that is so staggering. This is the world that I feel Cave writes best about: a murder-centric, dusty Middle America, where the women hide murderous desires behind pinafores and the men battle it out in the bars. I mean, that’s not all he writes about, however these are fairly consistent themes during this period of Cave’s writing. (MC)
Every Coin – Spring Offensive
Oh the arrogant bastards writing about themselves, I hear you shout. Well, we wanted this to be about narrative in music, so I suppose this is our attempt at writing a clearly driven narrative track. Like most of our songs, it starts with the idea; ‘this is what we should write about,’ for whatever reason. The music’s job is to therefore capture the mood that the lyrics and the idea sets. However, the two cannot be separated from each other. It is too simple to say that music enhances mood; I think the relationship is far more volatile and complicated than that.
The track is simply about a man being forced to eat the contents of his wallet. Why? Apart for suffering from a fetish for the extended metaphor, I also think that it is such a rich image, one which can have a million interpretations. It is not about greed. It is not about material vs. financial wealth. It is not about crime. It is not about capitalism. We don’t want to discourage reading, we just don’t want to influence or dictate it (specific to this song, mind). I hope that makes sense. So, to try and make myself a bit clearer, ILT’s work seems to lack a room to interpret (the tracks are what they are: history brought to life) whilst this is an image, or a moment in time captured, set up to be interpreted, not just accepted. What a load of guff. (MC)
Little Houdini – Sage Francis
This is pretty far from being his best song, but it is notable in that it is the first time Sage Francis, one of the greatest lyricists of our generation, commits to a single, clear narrative within his music. As such, some of the expression is slightly clumsy, but he never strays from the thread of this good story, and mines it for its full potential. The character, Christopher Daniel Gay, is introduced in the first line of the song. He then encourages the listener to re-examine our prejudices, as we hear the story of the fugitive who breaks out of prison twice with the sole purpose of visiting each of his dying parents, before turning himself in again. In the end he finally makes a full clean break. This all happened last year, and he is currently at large. (Lucas Whitworth: Vocals)
Eli, The Barrow Boy – The Decemberists
The album Picturesque contains one of the best-known examples of narrative in popular music, The Mariner's Revenge Song, but this, from the same record, is far superior. A reworking of the Irish folk song, Molly Malone, it is simple, touching and tragic. The melody has that mournful tone and the instrumentation has the simplicity to let it pass for a traditional piece. But the lyrics are very clever. Eli and his love are poor, she has died, and he, most likely, drowns himself out of sorrow. However, he is dressed in corduroy, possibly the best clothes he has, indicating that he has prepared himself for death. Moreover, his main aim in life is to make enough money to buy his lover exotic, almost impossible clothes (the mention of ‘Arabian’ shows the ideal nature of this fantasy). Clothes, and the status they embody are crucial. After death, he continues to push his barrow. Is this because he cannot join her? Or because he needs to work even in death? Just like it is for Molly, death is a continuation Eli’s struggle on earth, highlighted by the double-meaning of ‘barrow’. This tragedy is conveyed within about 20 lines. It is, quite simply, a stunning piece of work. (LW)
Seven Drunken Nights – The Dubliners
This is basically an Irish drinking song. The narrative is fairly straightforward and self-explanatory: a man is so drunk that he confuses various objects that his wife has been given by her mother for his own possessions. Championed by Radio Caroline, it managed to get into the UK top 10 in 1967, despite being blacklisted by the BBC, presumably for celebrating drinking culture. As Ronnie Drew says at the start of the recording though, they weren’t ‘allowed’ to sing the final two verses, because the content is too sexual and potentially offensive. You’d be hard pushed to find a definitive recording of the full track, and the various versions that abound tend to vary dramatically. Essentially, it's down to the teller to complete the story, ideally as offensively as possible. (LW)
What Sarah Said – Death Cab for Cutie
The strength of the narrative in this song belies the reality of its writing, and is perhaps an interesting rebuttal to the conventional wisdom of ‘write what you know.’ The protagonist laments the final days, hours and minutes of a loved one’s life as they expire in a hospital bed, and tells of the bleak, depressive atmosphere of the hospital waiting room. Exploration of this highly delicate subject with such uncompromising candour can’t just be conjecture can it? Some might even consider it insensitive to do so. Well not me, and not Ben Gibbard, lead singer and songwriter of Death Cab:
‘I feel that songwriters are held to a different standard than almost any other type of writer – some fans get genuinely upset if I admit that a song that they held close to their heart was not based on actual events in my life. Like What Sarah Said: I was never in a waiting room in a hospital waiting for news that somebody was going to die. I’ve been in hospital waiting rooms before, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I got a sense of the general vibe of the room – not a joyous place – and I decided to set a song there.’ (Pelham Groom: Drums)
Wasn't Me – Shaggy feat. Ricardo Ducent
Now I for one would never condone adultery, but you’ve gotta give Shaggy some style points for sticking so religiously to his guns. If caught red handed, both in person and on camera, on the sofa and indeed in the shower, the less confident among us might encourage our wayward friends to confess all and face the music, but not Shaggy. And whilst Ducent eventually does decide to come clean, much of Shaggy’s sage-like wisdom still rings true: ‘But if she pack a gun you know you better run fast.’ Quite. (PG)
Rusted Guns of Milan – Art Brut
IMHO, this song has the added beauty of not making its meaning explicit from the get go. Some people seem to get it immediately, but it took me several verses to figure out what on earth he was talking about (I’m sure I’d have gotten it sooner if I had ever suffered from this terrible affliction...ahem...right ladies...not me...never...). Anyway, the sparse exposition and heavy repetition heightens the tension, making the eventual reveal that much more entertaining. And whilst it is perhaps not a narrative in the traditional sense, it certainly takes you on a journey, and we’re not that interested in traditional definitions are we? I won’t spoil it for you by giving the game away, just have a listen. If you get it right away, well... I’d get an appointment in the diary. (PG)