A woman in my studies in the essay class turned in an essay that had, as one of its points, the idea that songs can be personal essays. I love this idea, and for a bit,
I’ve finally figured out how to play the stuff on the big computer (K1) on the little computer (Herbie) using the home wireless network, and so 21 songs, all purchased (no, really!) through the iTunes music store, have been following me from room to room to room (to iPod, eventually, and to car). I have to admit that right now, I’m most in love with Gary Lightbody’s voice (he’s the lead singer of Snow Patrol, but also of Reindeer Section), Ben Folds’s stories, and Bright Eyes’s lyrics. I can’t do much to show off the first, but let me go after the second two for a moment.
Ben Folds. Oh, Ben Folds. The song “Don’t Change Your Plans” from the BFFive album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner still just makes me ache. I’m not sure if that song qualifies as an essay or a short story. Consider the story, though, and from the second verse you get the greatest first line: I sat here on my suitcase in our empty new apartment ’til the sun went down, then I walked back down the stairs with all my bags and drove away. You must be freaking out. And “Landed,” which is the single from the new album that I have yet to buy (eep!), is just as good. I like the simple lines the best, maybe: “Moved to the West Coast, away from everyone. She never told me that you called.” Gah. I am destroyed.
So, the point of the paper from class was that songs use “personal” experiences to connect with listeners in the way that personal essays use specific stories to lead a reader toward something more universal. I think Ben Folds has always, somehow, accomplished that with particular economy and precision, at least for me. “Magic” is a beautiful song but it also rings true, y’know?
Now, let me pick up the scattered pieces of me and talk a little bit about Bright Eyes. This is a group I have no history with — not like Ben Folds, which I feel I have some (albeit it slender) authority in talking about here. There are three songs on my current “playlist” from Bright Eyes: “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” “Method Acting,” and “The Calendar Hung Itself*.” There’s a certain brutality in the songs — both their lyrics and their sound — that’s a little shocking at first, but I’ve grown to love all three. “Lover” has become a particular favorite, because it’s just so… honest. It’s a thing that no one says. “I want a lover I don’t have to love. I want a girl who’s just out to give a fuck” or “I want a boy so drunk he doesn’t talk.” Etc. I mean, this song has all of the brutal pick up moments, even starting with the compliment of shoes. And then, playing to one of my obsessions, there’s the self-criticism, the work criticizing itself: “Some sad singers, they just play tragic.” Ah, ah, ah. Thanks, I love that. My next favorite: “I need some meaning I can memorize. The kind I have always seems to slip my mind.” Oh, one more: “You write such pretty words, But life’s no storybook.” (Lyrics are available here).
So these would be of the essayistic voice in both a different and the same way. Different because Ben Folds tells sparse “personal” stories, which makes them accessible, I think, because they’re left somewhat general and open for interpretation. Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst, as the lyricist) uses very pointed, direct language to paint scenes that appear so blisteringly real that they connect on the strength of the honesty conveyed.
I think I’ll leave it there. “The Calendar Hung Itself” can be downloaded for free, along with a few other Bright Eyes tracks, from Wichita Recordings. There’s also a live NPR broadcast of Bright Eyes from the 9:30 club in D.C. up over here.