A couple of years ago I had a chat with Anthonie Tonnon –it was in the lead up to his then-new album, his first solo record and we got to talking about economy in songwriting, the ideas around narrative, songs that seem to be stuffed with back-story, but done in a subtle, stirring way. There are certain songs where you are aware of more that’s happened – or happening – and yet it’s not some overly wordy, complicated, 37-verse bardic shambles.
My immediate example, one I shared with Mr Tonnon on the phone, was The Mutton Birds’ Dominion Road. Those opening lines are evocative and intriguing – and then BAM! We are hit with the story: “Jane reached the point where she knew/What it meant before he opened his mouth/He couldn’t say the same/Or he’d have guessed she was moving south/With one of his friends”.
How long were they together? Was it ten days or months or years? That doesn’t matter – we have this sense, instantly and without the very specific details, of a relationship that’s gone sour. We can see that there’s blame – or issues – on both sides. The song, like so many of Don McGlashan’s (and particularly on those first two Mutton Birds albums, and the ones that preceded on the Front Lawn albums) is a little short-story set to music. And there’s this perfect shape, nothing extraneous.
I think, too, of Paul Kelly’s To Her Door – the first verse lays down the break-up of a relationship, gives you the back-story of falling in love early, or marrying early – struggling to get by… “They got married early, never had no money/Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids/He started up his drinking, then they started fighting/He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids”.
I’ve talked before about killer opening lines and couplets, lyrics that set the mood, create some intrigue – Tom Waits does it well, Nick Cave has so many examples. I can’t find the link to that post (it was at least six years ago) but the song that had stuck in my head and created the idea for that original topic was Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ We Came Along This Road – “I left by the back door/With my wife’s lover’s smoking gun”. I love the way that sets up the song. Tells you all you might need to know – but leaves you intrigued to listen on, to find out what’s next, to see how it might unfold.
In all three of these examples here – McGlashan, Kelly, Cave – I could suggest the influence of Raymond Carver, of short-story writing, of journalism – almost anything outside of just songwriting. (We all know that other songwriting is the big influence on most songs anyway).
Carver’s my guess there – though Paul Kelly has used one of his stories as the entire basis for a song. Raymond Carver is one of those writers where the economy and the open-ended approach certainly appeals to songwriters, as well as to other fiction writers too of course.
Songwriting can be a form of journalism, and is certainly a form of fiction writing, so it makes sense that some of the best examples of scene-setting and economy within a pop song might come from the page rather than the stage, from other writers and other writing outside and away from pop songs and songwriters.
There are obviously plenty of other examples – Randy Newman regularly explains away a character’s motives and gives you decades of backstory within just a few short verses – but I want to hear about some of your favourites. What song lyrics/songwriters do you see as very fine examples of telling huge amounts of backstory within just a few words or lines?