I’m inaugurating a new feature here, in which I will fangirl out about songs that I think have terrific lyrics. After all, I study and write lyric poetry, and the lyrics to pop music often use the same figures and techniques that poems do. I will be shamelessly ahistorical and name this feature “Lyrical Ballads.” Suck it, Wordsworth.
The song that I have been obsessing about this week is from one of my favorite songwriters, Dar Williams, who was required listening at Smith College in the late 90s/early 2000s. There are so many great Dar songs, and great Dar lyrics, that it took a while for “After All” to become one of my favorites. It has so much competition! But this song is subtle and sneaky and masterful, and since I have been posting about death and family and memory all week, it seems like the time to single this one out.
The song has a relatively simple theme: the speaker was suicidally depressed, but “chose to live.” What makes it amazing, I think, is its lyrical density (more on that in a sec) and its refusal to follow the standard verse-chorus-bridge structures of most pop songs. Listen carefully: there is no chorus, and you’d be hard-pressed to say where one “verse” ends and another begins. If it was written down, you’d process it as a narrative poem in loose quatrains. The melody, however, stays constant: the drama of the song comes from the tension between the predictable melody and the unpredictable path of the lyrics. The title, which starts to seem rather arbitrary, ends up being the final phrase of the song, creating a terrific sense of closure that was not guaranteed by the meandering that came before.
And those lyrics! I can’t name my favorite line, because every line makes my heart explode into confetti and tears. But I’ll pick a representative few to illustrate why this song is so emotionally effective.
Well the whole truth
Is like the story of a wave unfurled
But I held the evil of the world
So I stopped the tide
Froze it up from inside
And it felt like a winter machine
That you go through and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring bound
The unifying imagery here is that of a cold evil. But the way Dar uses that imagery is perfect (imho) for capturing the alienating nature of depression: it’s both inside and outside her, both something she feels she’s caused and something she feels has been done to her (the “winter machine” she must pass through). It involves a derangement of autonomy and her sense of self, and that in turn perverts the world she’s in: winter occurs again and again, because she is in this machine while everyone else is in nature, where spring will arrive on schedule.
The whole song is that complex and good. I have to point out the part that has been destroying me this week, as I miss my mom, who lost the ability to communicate long before she died. There’s too much to say about why that was its own kind of death and grief — but this lyric speaks to what I wish I could go back in time to figure out.
And when I chose to live
There was no joy – it’s just a line I crossed
It wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost
So I was not lost or found
And if I was to sleep
I knew my family had more truth to tell
And so I traveled down a whispering well
To know myself through them
One of the worst things that death does is silence what truth might have been told. I know myself partly through losing my family, and it too often feels like being neither lost nor found.
So: go listen to some Dar Williams. Bring tissues.