4 Songs That Sing A Story

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. TC mark


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  • http://www.facebook.com/anniehighleysmith Annie Highley-Smith

    how about every harry chapin, jimmy buffet, or lamenting 70s soft rock song?

    all have a story.

  • thankyou

    You included Stars. I love you!

    • larabeesays

      Thanks! I love you too!

  • Liza

    Thanks for sharing the first two which I was previously unaware of. However, I have always felt an overwhelming emotion when I listen to Your Ex Lover is Dead. This song has remained with me for years and continues to be an integral part of my musical tastes. Is there anything more beautiful than the line “It’s nothing but time and a face that you lose?”

  • Jake

    There are a lot of hardcore bands now that write more poetic story-like lyrics, if you’re into that kind of music. A couple good ones are Defeater and Pianos Become The Teeth, but by far my favorite is a band called La Dispute. Here’s an excerpt from one of their songs, “Said The King To The River”:

    “And how we’ve trembled at the way that time assembles little fires of desire in the tundra of our skin
    So do yourself a little favor: savor every time you waver, for that shaking in my voice was only slightly feigned chagrin”

    Definitely worth checking out’

    • shauna

      La Dispute is brilliant. “Nine” and “all our bruised bodies” both make me cry.

      Also, “Colly Strings” by Manchester Orchestra.

  • E.

    Have you heard about Poets of the Fall? They have beautiful, beautiful songs; some of them are stories (The poet and the muse, Carnival of rust), some of them not so much, but they all have very poetic lyrics, honouring their name. They are Finnish and still write better than many English/American bands. In my humble opinion, of course.

  • David

    I always like One More Night a bit more then You’re Ex Lover is Dead – had those lines that really hurt just to hear. Either way – amazing album and songwriters.

    Live through this, and you won’t look back… Mantra to the ending of all my relationships

  • http://www.westayawake.com erin

    sometime after midnight, airborne toxic event.
    i die.

    • http://nevermindthecheese.wordpress.com Jane S.


  • Aj

    What about Joanna Newsome’s Only Skin, It is like 15 mins long

    • lucy

      yes exactly. or really any joanna newsom song.

  • Liz

    I would never have known about this music if I had not read this. Music was completely unfamiliar to this 59 yr old. But wow – love it. Thank you. From a fan of the site, who feels 39 not 59 (helps to have a 21yr old musician son!)

  • Claire

    Novacane by Frank Ocean, for sure

  • jbell


  • iwriteandstuff

    “Del Cielo” by Levi Weaver. You will not be disappointed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherls Caity Sherlock

    I was at the Bonnaroo show, it was the most brilliant set ever. kudos to this list. xo

    • larabeesays

      Wasn’t it, though?? I cried a little!

  • g

    What about ‘Sometime Around Midnight’ by the Airborne Toxic Event? It’s effectively a dramatic monologue/soliloquy and is exquisite yet heartbreaking

  • Paige

    Please, do yourself a favor and check out some of Sufjan Stevens’ music if you haven’t already. In my personal opinion, I think he is the best musical storyteller out there and his songs are orchestrated and lush, along with incredible lyrics. You might not like his voice, as it sounds like the flapping of a moth’s wings, but the images he creates within the mind and the stories he tells through his music are awe-inspiring. Some of them are cryptic, but after a few listens you can interpret them for yourself.

    • leapingsweetly

      Casimir Pulaski Day

  • James

    There’s quite a few songs by State Radio that tell fantastic stories, including “Mr. Larkin”, “right me up” and “Camilo” that are all very much worth a listen

  • lowercaselaurel

    These are some great songs!

    Personally, I think Jesse Lacey of Brand New is the songwriter of our generation. Andy Hull does a great job, too. I loved his work with Kevin Devine (another amazing storytelling songwriter).

    • Sita


  • http://heycollegesreadthis.wordpress.com heycollegesreadthis

    “Stars” in general just writes flat out beautiful music.
    Murder In The City-The Avett Brothers
    To Build A Home-Cinematic Orchestra
    Iris-Goo Goo Dolls

  • Asa

    Manchester Orchestra <3

  • Dreamazine

    If you like stories in music you should give hip hop a go. Some beautiful stories there.
    The first that springs to mind is Fetus by Nas or No Excuse for Lovin by Soul Position. But there are countless others. Also anything by Atmosphere.

  • lucy

    samson by regina spektor

  • Shannon

    I don’t even need to finish reading this article, because you first video was Manchester. Andy Hull is a god with a pen (especially his side project Right Away! Great Captain). Kudos to this !

  • Janelle

    love love love manchester orchestra death cab for cutie and stars

  • http://femtravel.wordpress.com bbesaw

    I also have similar tastes. My long-time favorite is true affections by the blow. If you’ve not heard it you should give it a listen.

  • jessica

    helplessness blues-fleet foxes

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