Monday, May 6, 2013

At the Center of the World - Bright Eyes (Song)

In high school, I was really close with one of my English teachers, Ms. Bishop. I never took a creative writing class from her, but I learned more about the creative process talking to her than from all other high school teachers combined. We had similar tastes in music and poetry, and we would often discuss what made art good or bad and how to emulate that. I remember with some clarity an exchange about song structure that I have reflected on many times over the years. I was explaining to her how, as a song-writer myself, I was interested in song structures that deviated from the common "A B A B C B B" format. She warned me that she had heard hundreds of "Lillith Fair" types performing at open mic nights or in coffee shops and how often their music lacked a "center." She said something to the effect of, "I know they think their poems are really good, and they want to just sing it all out in an unbroken line, but really, can't we just have a chorus?"

I didn't say anything at the time, but I was almost offended by how much this opinion differed from my own. Back then anything that didn't have a chorus got five automatic bonus points in my mind simply on the basis that it was "unique." I'm older now, and I understand there really isn't anything all that unique about eschewing a chorus. I'm sure she didn't mean that a song without a chorus couldn't be good, what she was probably saying was that they aberrated out of laziness or an adolescent desire to be different, not because it actually made their songs any better.

There is a reason so many songs have refrains of some kind or another: it works. It resonates with people. I understand now that if you're going to strike off down a different, less common, path, you've got to sell it. There needs to be a reason. Or, at the very least, it needs to be done with skill.

This brings us to today's review: At the Center of the World, a song which has long been one of my favorites by emo/folk/whatever band, Bright Eyes. At the Center of the World, as you may have guessed, has no chorus or refrain of any kind. It is completely linear, without even remaining emotionally constant. What makes this song work is its flow. The unusual structure of the song is only a vehicle for the art, as opposed to being the artistic statement itself. If I had not mentioned that it lacked a chorus, it is likely you would not have even noticed. I certainly didn't until hearing the song a number of times. It is as if it could not be told correctly in any other way.

The lyrics are mystic, the message unclear. I have listened to this song probably more than a thousand times, but still--when I focus on it as I listen--I am drawn in. There is something irresistible in the feeling of this song which, ironically, has no center. A story is told which ranges from the scope of a society to the personal. As listeners, we don't say, "Man, this song is so cool 'cuz it doesn't have one of those repeat-y things," we say, "Man, this song really hits me emotionally. It sticks with me." This song helped me to better understand when to break the pattern, namely, when your piece demands it.

-MA 5.6.13

Here is a YouTube video, but it's much better to listen on Spotify or simply buy the song, because this is pretty low quality audio. Be sure to read along as you listen, the lyrics are most excellent.

Don't talk to me about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
This was the first video to pop up on YouTube.

At the center of the world, there's a statue of a girl.
She is standing near a well with a bucket bare and dry.

I went and looked her in the eyes, and she turned me into sand.
This clumsy form that I scattered easy in her hand.

And came to rest upon a beach with a million others there.
We sat and waited for the sea to stretch out so that we could disappear
Into the endlessness of blue. Into the horror of the truth.
You see, we are far less than we knew. Yeah, we are far less than we knew.

But we knew what we could taste. 

Girls found honey to drench our hands.
Men cut marble to mark our graves. 

Said we'll need something to remind us of all the sweetness that has passed through us.
The priests dressed children for a choir but found no joy in what was sung.
The funeral had begun.

In the middle of the day, when you drive home to your place
From that job that makes you sleep, back to the thoughts that keep you awake
Long after night has come to claim any life that still remains 
In the corner of the frame that you put around her face.

Two pills just weren't enough.
The alarm clock's going off,
But you're not waking up.
This isn't happening, happening, happening, happening, happening. 

It is.


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