I’m going to risk sounding like a curmudgeon and complain about modern music. But I’ll make up for it, I promise. And I won’t complain about all modern music, just the stuff that follows the usual formula. You know what I mean. It’s music that was meant to be danced to and not listened to. It’s music written for people who won’t really be paying attention. And just so you know, I have absolutely zero problem with that kind of music… when I’m not really paying attention. Otherwise, I need music to tell me a story.
It sounds like an odd request, doesn’t it? I mean song lyrics are just supposed to be poems about falling in love or breaking up, right? NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO! From the beginning, songs were stories set to music. I don’t understand why the majority of pop music ignores this. But all is not lost for those of us who want to be simultaneously rapt by a great song and sitting on the edge of our seats wondering what will happen next. There are many modern musical bards out there. And I’ve gone ahead and compiled a list of some of my favorites, along with an example of why I think they’re awesome.
“Going the Distance”
No trophy, no flowers, no flash bulbs, no wine.
He’s haunted by something he cannot define.
Bowel shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse,
Assail him, impale him with monster truck force.
This band has such a unique sound and atypical instrumentation that the stories they tell are just icing on the already awesome cake. “Going the Distance” is a song about a guy who can’t stop driving his car around the racetrack because he’s obsessively mourning the one that got away. I love it. It’s tragic, and the music echoes an engine sound beautifully.
“The Mariner’s Revenge”
And then, that fateful night,
We had you in our sight,
After twenty months at sea.
Your starboard flank abeam,
I was getting my muskets clean,
When came this rumbling from beneath.
The ocean shook,
The sky went black,
And the captain quailed.
And before us grew
The angry jaws
Of a giant whale.
They had me at the giant whale, which shows up in the first verse (this is a later one). This song is chilling and creepy and oh so very yes! I recall going to one of their concerts where they saved this song until last, and the whole crowed roared when they heard it. Because you can’t NOT love it. And this isn’t their only great story. The lead singer, Colin Meloy, graduated with an MFA in creative writing, and it shows. Just a fun FYI, I named Duke Eli Mahler after their song “Eli the Barrow Boy” and I gave him a wheelbarrow scene just because.
Fred Jones was worn out,
From caring for his often
Screaming and crying wife,
During the day, but
He couldn’t sleep at night for fear that she,
In a stupor from the drugs that didn’t ease the pain,
Would set the house ablaze
With a cigarette.
This is the song in its entirety. Ben Folds can really spin a tale, and it doesn’t take him long to do so. Fred Jones even has a sequel in which the title character loses his job, poor guy. This is flash fiction at its best.
Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley
“A Campaign of Shock and Awe”
Behold, the eighth wonder of the natural world!
Come one and come all, see the two-headed girl.
You’ll be shocked, you’ll be awed!
A true freak of nature, a blunder of God!
But possessing such talents,
Hear them sing, see them dance.
As seen in the highest class parlors of France.
Just ten bucks a photograph,
Get your seats while they last.
We take Visa and MasterCard, debit or cash.
Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley created an entire album dedicated to their characters, Evelyn and Evelyn, conjoined twins who work in a circus side-show. It’s both humorous and heartbreaking. The title song has me emotionally invested after the first few lines (here’s a beautiful stop-motion video made for “Evelyn Evelyn”).
“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us”
North of Savanna we swim in the palisades.
I come out wearing my brother’s red hat.
There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times;
He runs washing his face in his hands.
Oh, how I meant to tease him.
Oh, how I meant no harm.
Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him.
I see the wasp on the length of my arm.
I’ve been mad for Sufjan ever since one of his songs gave me nightmares before I even knew it existed. I’d heard his “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” courtesy of my alarm clock, and instead of waking up to it, dreamed about a terrifying killer clown. The above song, though, is probably my favorite of his. The imagery in it is so full of nostalgia, I almost feel like he’s singing about my own memories.
“Fire Coming Out Of A Monkey’s Head”
Once upon a time at the foot of a great mountain,
there was a town where the people known as Happyfolk lived,
their very existence a mystery to the rest of the world,
obscured as it was by great clouds.
Here they played out their peaceful lives,
innocent of the litany of excess and violence that was growing in the world below.
To live in harmony with the spirit of the mountain called Monkey was enough.
Then one day Strangefolk arrived in the town.
They came in camouflage, hidden behind dark glasses, but no one noticed them; they only saw shadows.
You see, without the Truth of the Eyes, the Happyfolk were blind.
How could I not mention Gorillaz? The whole band is an incredibly imaginative, animated fiction. Every song sounds different from the last, and each story has a different feel. I never tire of them.
And last but so far from least, it’s scary:
We put up our tent on a dark,
Green knoll outside of town by
The train tracks and a seagull dump.
Topping the bill was Horse Face Ethel
And her ‘Marvellous Pigs In Satin.’
We pounded our stakes in the ground,
All powder brown,
And the branches spread like scary
We were in a pasture outside Kankakee.
And One Eyed Myra, the queen of
The galley, who trained the
Ostrich and the camels,
She looked at me squinty with her
One good eye in a Roy Orbison
T-shirt as she bottle fed
An orangutan named Tripod.
There are so many awesome Tom Waits story-songs, I couldn’t possibly list them all in one blog post and not look like a freak. But if you’ve never had a taste of this man’s delicious voice and darkly humorous music, you’ve missed something truly unique. The day I first heard him, I fell head over heals. The man is iconic. Honestly. Go and have a listen to some of his work. It speaks for itself.
So have I missed anyone? I’m sure I have. Feel free to list any great storytelling musicians you think I’ve overlooked. I’m always on the lookout for more.