Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Song Narratives

On my walk to work yesterday, a particular song by Dada--See I'm tryin' to start this rock band, and my drummer really needed a kit. He's really into Bonham and Ozzy, you know he really likes to hit--came up in the shuffle. This song tells a little story about some guys meeting the titular Bob The Drummer after reading a classified ad about a set of drums he's selling. In the course of the song they discover that Bob is basically who they will become in 20 years, and at the end Bob decides he's not quite ready to sell his drums--You never know when there might be a gig.

This song is just, you know, cool in that way that songs are cool sometimes. I've heard this song on the order of magnitude of 100 times, and yesterday I made a new narrative out of the song that hadn't ever occurred to me before--Bob knew when he placed the drum ad that he wasn't selling the drums, he was just looking for the company. Moreover, I narratively surmised, maybe the whole thing was a ruse on Bob's part, knowing that since he's offerring a set of drums for an unusually low low price, he's going to draw folks who are on the path in life that he is, and that he's decided to serve as a subtle warning: you'll end up playing weddings and bar mitzvahs for half scale, staring into oblivion, and saying "Oh, how time flies."

Calvino: Is this the lamest post that has ever been composed on this blog?

The Stoat: Possibly. I have it on good authority that the author has an exam coming up this weekend and so hasn't had much time to post the last week and a half or so, and was feeling he needed some new content.

Calvino: Hmm...

L. and I are on a long quest for narrative in song. One of our favorite road trip activities is to put on Sting's The Soul Cages and discuss reader response to the unfolding story of a shipyard worker's son that happens in it. It's like talking about tv shows (which we, of course, also do all the time) except it's music, and it's much harder to find. Off the top of my head, I can only name...well, off the top of my head, Dark Side of the Moon is the only other album that comes to mind that's an extended narrative in LP form. I welcome your other submissions to this search, though. Must...have...more...narrative....


Sam said...

I guess it depends on how we define narrative, and you and L know more about that than I, but I'd certainly propose some other albums that work to produce a coherent narrative.

Joshua Tree produces a consistent (if multifaceted and complex) narrative about America.

Achtung Baby is about love (I know, all rock is about love) and particularly about loss. (I'll cite no more u2, but will say that Bono suggests in that LONG Rolling Stone interview that ALL of their albums have, if not a consistent narrative, at least a consistent theme).

Hotel California is about the surreal world that is California in the 1970s.

Running on Empty is, well, about a band on the road. (I know, that's too easy, but it is certainly a narrative).

Funeral is obviously about death and mourning (again, too easy, but still).

Rebecca said...

I suppose there are several groups we could put albums into (I feel a particularly structuralist moment coming on. be forewarned):

thematic (see Sam's examples)
portraiture (of a period, of a person, of a political view)
narrative (rarer, I'll agree)

I think that thematic is common, portraiture is sort of a more obvious theme: Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now, with his fabulous "Oh Condi Condi" and "Home to Houston" narrating elements of our recent history in Iraq but in protest mode falls within this pseudo-narrative portrait category.

There is an entire genre of singer-songwriter/Austin country/southern rock that is all about story: the song Hotel California is truly a narrative, for example; much of Dolly Parton's recent turn to bluegrass involves long, lovely stories...there are more examples, I'm just not conversant enough.

We've lost the albumness of albums, I must say, so that finding an album that truly has a coherence to it is rare. We've utterly lost the side-1, side-2 rhythm of LPs and cassettes, where you had to have a good closer for side one and a good opener for side two, in addition to the album opener and closer...but we do have a few folks still thinking that way: John Mellencamp's Mr. Happy Go Lucky album is, ostensibly, a unit in itself with songs telling a story and it's even musically joined together. I know. John Mellencamp. sorry.

dan said...

No, yeah: I was thinking about that distinction between thematic & narrative -- which one is a concept album? Narrative might be what is called a concept album, where within the whole there's sort of a running storyline and, in some cases, characters are created that pop up throughout the work. Thematic happens a lot, I think, intentionally or not -- you see certain themes and narrative threads throughout an album, which is particularly effective when the micro-level stories & experiences speak to a larger social/political situation.

With regards to the latter: a favorite, though, again, probably too obvious, would def be Ziggy Stardust. But, since that's obvious, here's another, lesser-appreciated Bowie concept album: Outside. Super good. (Related: When you think about it, what is the Labrynth without David Bowie?!)

Also, I'm a huge Tori Amos fan, and she does the thematic thing a lot. But Boys For Pele, to hear her describe it, is definitely a narrative album. And one of my all-time faves, say what people will about it.

OK Computer kind of sits on the border between the two.

Finally, Illinois, while a concept album, is more portraiture than narrative (Rebecca: would you put portraiture as a sub-cat of narrative?).

Rebecca said...

I suppose in one sense a portrait tells a story about someone, but it's not really a narrative in the sense that a portrait doesn't have any directionality (that is, it's not that narratives are necessarily linear, but they do move (they may return to where they've been, but they're moving), whereas a portrait has a static quality to it. So (come on feel the) Illinois(e) would be more toward the portrait side of things.

concept album is, for me, a bit too broad. I know this is the lingo in the biz, so to speak, but it means anything that has something deeper than: "whoa, I'm making an album" behind it, right?

I must listen to the Tori Amos album. sam drew the line at Tori, precisely because of her lyrics which he finds impenetrable.

you're right, Dan: Bowie would be an essential in the sequel to Labyrinth. it's just those childhood nightmares I had about him, and he's so, well, Bowie.