It’s hard for me to get into songs with mediocre lyrics. Even the catchiest tune or the most beautiful melody can only keep me engaged for so long — eventually, I’m going to start to wish that there was more to what I’ve heard, some element that I can really think about. For this reason, my iTunes library is filled with brilliant stories. The songs that I admire, that I never get tired of, read like poetry. The musicians I care for the most could probably write novels if they tried.
I spend a lot of time seeking out this kind of music. As it turns out, profound songwriting didn’t die with the era of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, it’s just no longer a defining trait of chart-topping hits. But don’t despair: for those of you who can’t find it in your heart to care who has or has not called Carly Rae Jepsen recently, here are four beautiful, out-of-the-ordinary songs and the stories behind them.
“I Can Feel a Hot One” by Manchester Orchestra
A lot of people have guessed that this song has to do with, or was at least inspired by, some kind of drug incident. But Andy Hull, lead singer and songwriter for Manchester Orchestra, actually based the latter half of lyrics on a nightmare he had.
“I could feel my heartbeat taking me down
And for the moment, I would sleep alright,
I’m dealing with a selfish fear
To keep me up another restless night,
Another restless night.”
Hull explained in an interview with Westword Magazine that in this dream, he and his pregnant wife were in a terrible car accident. He seemed to come out of the crash uninjured, but his wife didn’t make it. After mourning this heartbreaking loss for a few verses, he realized that their unborn child had survived in the very last lines of the song (“And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter / She was crying inside your stomach / And I felt love again”). “This life was inside her,” he said, “and in some weird way I was able to celebrate that there was some new life coming with one ending.”
I have a lot of respect for Andy Hull’s willingness to write about something so intensely personal. The world of your dreams in the only one that’s ever truly your own, and so I can only imagine the process of turning a nightmare into a beautiful ballad, and the courage it must take to share it.
“Oviedo” by Blind Pilot
Have you ever stared out an airplane window and, caught up in thoughts inspired by your new vantage point, painfully considered the distance between you and someone you love? There’s a song for that. It’s called “Oviedo,” named after the city in northern Spain.
While I don’t know whether it’s a real firsthand account or not, the story here is a letter home to a somehow-significant other. The narrator collects details of his walk through Oviedo (the peacocks in the street, the towering cathedrals) to share, but they all lead him to memories of the letter’s intended recipient:
But there were nights in bars that I recall
Your breath was courage laced with alcohol
You leaned in, you said,
“Make music with the chatter in here,
And whisper all the notes in my ears.”
My favorite thing about this song is that pretty much everything else about it is vague enough for individual interpretation. We never find out anything about the person being addressed, the reason for the trip in the first place, or how the story ends. Israel Nebeker, Blind Pilot’s lead singer, introduced “Oviedo” during their Bonnaroo set by simply stating, “This is a song about being far away from home.”
“Death of An Interior Decorator” by Death Cab for Cutie
Arguably one of the most underrated Death Cab songs (“arguably,” in this case, meaning that I, a very dedicated fan, feel inclined and prepared to argue this), “Death of an Interior Decorator” is confusing at best. I spent a good part of my time listening to it trying, in vain, to make sense of the lyrics. After a bit of research, I figured it out: Ben Gibbard modeled the story of this song not after his own life, but rather after the already-existing plot of Woody Allen’s film, The Interiors.
Barely three minutes long, the lyrics quickly describe the premise of the movie, addressing Geraldine Page’s character in the second-person (“You were the mother of three girls so sweet..”). They then carry us through a pivotal wedding scene, and leave us with a poetically simple account of our heroine’s tragic suicide:
Arriving late, you clean the debris
And walked into the angry sea
It felt just like falling in love again.
“Your Ex-Lover is Dead” by Stars
We’re all suckers for love songs. Take a second to browse the iTunes Top 100 (or maybe your own personal library) and count the tracks that follow these general patterns: a declaration of love, a plea for forgiveness/rekindling from an ex, a courting gesture, etc. Many popular artists stick to this formula religiously, simply writing the same story into a variety of chord progressions and calling it an album (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift). And as beautiful as some of these classic stories can be, it impresses me when a songwriter can approach the subject of romance from a less clichéd perspective — what happens in the love stories without happy endings? Or the ones that never have a chance to begin?
God, that was strange to see you again,
Introduced by a friend of a friend,
Smiled and said, “Yes, I think we’ve met before,”
In that instant it started to pour.
A man and a woman run into each other unexpectedly and, due to sudden rain, share a ride in a taxi. As the music builds and the male and female voices exchange verses, they hint at the nature of their history together: a one-night stand. The encounter is awkward and even darkly comical for the first minute or so (“All of that time you thought I was sad / I was trying to remember your name.”), but the singers uncover layers of beauty and complexity as they take us through.
Nothing but time and a face that you’ll lose,
I chose to feel it and you couldn’t choose,
I’ll write you a postcard, I’ll send you the news
From the house down the road from real love.
Then, together, they state their lack of regret for their actions. I’ve always read this as an implication that their run-in hasn’t changed the state of their relationship — to the rest of the world, they entered the taxi as strangers, and exited as such. The story ends where it began.