what works

I wrote a few days back about The Tallest Man On Earth’s The Wild Hunt and how it fell apart once I started listening to the lyrics.

Here’s an attempt to explain myself in somewhat more detail. Of course, you may hear it differently and what for me is obscure and flat is for you a knife through the heart, or something.

Here is verse one and the chorus of the song ‘The Wild Hunt,’ (as opposed to the album) copied from one of the innumerable lyric sites on the web.

There is a crow moon comin in well you keep looking out
It is the hollow month of march now sweeping in
Lets watch phenomenon’s that rise out of the darkness now
Within the light she is my storming heroin
And old machine’s abandoned by the ancient races and
I hear them hummin down below and hollow earth
Oh hell I guess I know no while I will go under to
But just for now I let the spring and storm return

I left my heart to the wild hunt a-comin
I live until the call
And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone
Yes I’ll be leavin’ in the fall

1st line: There is a crow moon comin in well you keep looking out

I like ‘comin’ in’ and ‘looking out.’ But ‘crow moon’ means nothing to me. I had to Google it to see that it refers to a moon at the end of winter.

Not that a phrase has to ‘mean’ anything, but if it doesn’t, it should evoke something. Let’s take Captain Beefheart’s hilarious “The Blimp”:

Tits tits the blimp the blimp
The mother ship the mother ship

Ok, it’s not Gershwin. But it is an example (an extreme one) of words as evocation. There is no ‘meaning’ as such, but the choice of words – and repetition – conjures up a feeling, an image, vaguely in the area of childhood and safety and toys and a kind of infantile sexuality. It’s only seven different words, two fewer than the opening line of  ‘The Wild Hunt,’ but it does a much better job, in my opinion, of suggestion.

Switch to something much less extreme and see if the argument holds. The standard ‘Moonlight Becomes You,’ first verse:

Moonlight becomes you, it goes with your hair
You certainly know the right thing to wear
Moonlight becomes you, I’m thrilled at the sight
And I could get so romantic tonight

For the purpose of this argument, focus on line one: Moonlight becomes you, it goes with your hair.

As befits a standard, the line is a model of clarity. Though one, ‘moonlight,’ has nothing literally to do with the other, ‘your hair,’ the connection is straightforward. The writer is saying one compliments the other, and by doing so, he’s implying that the loved one has some connection to the broader wonderful things in life. The meaning of the sentence is both determined (one compliments the other) and evocative (because one compliments the other, you are special.) It’s a stronger piece of writing for having those two ties.

But, one can argue, I’m comparing apples to oranges, something loosely based on folk tradition ‘The Wild Hunt’ – with something from the American songbook. Fair enough. We don’t expect the two musics to play by the exact same rules, though you can also argue good writing is good writing, and all good writing has some things in common.

But to be as fair to the line, let me look for moons in work closer aligned in spirit to ‘The Wild Hunt.’  From Bob Dylan’s  ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’:

Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past.

You couldn’t ask for more contrast. Seven words that tell a story – it’s the end of the day, the moon is up (the color is just enough detail to let me, the listener, see it in my mind’s eye) and the singer is doing what people do, turning events or feelings or memories over and over in his mind.

Moving on. Back to ‘The Wild Hunt,’ line 2:

It is the hollow month of march now sweeping in

I like this. ‘Hollow month of March’ gets closer to being something I understand, and it fits with ‘crow moon.’

Line 3: Lets watch phenomenon’s that rise out of the darkness now

I suspect that what it meant here is ‘phenomenons’ as a plural of phenomenon, and not the possessive. That said, it’s a bad line. ‘Phenomenon’ is a tough word to use meaningfully. It’s like ‘impact’ as a verb, both too much word and too little specificity.

Line 4: Within the light she is my storming heroin

I believe that should be ‘my storming heroine.’ Here we start to see the weight of missed opportunities bearing down on the writing – the preceding line mentioned ‘rise out of the darkness’ and this one adds ‘within the light.’ You could argue darkness and light play off each other, (as does ‘in’ and ‘out’) but neither has a specific attached to it to make it memorable (‘yellow moon’) and there is no connecting tissue to unite the two. They read like lines that are only weakly connected, by a conceit.

Lines 5 & 6: And old machine’s abandoned by the ancient races and/I hear them hummin down below and hollow earth

On their own these lines are pretty good, especially played off against the ‘it’s a bright new day’ sound of the singer. Problem is, they don’t really fit with either the preceding or following lines. In some cases, lines like these serve to expand the lyric, make it more universal, less specific to the singer and the time. But the specifics are a mess, and this just serves to muddle things.

Line 7: Oh hell I guess I know no while I will go under to

I’m having a little trouble believing this is an accurate transcription, and it sounds better than it reads. Still, you can’t avoid the fact that it just doesn’t serve much purpose. Even if words aren’t great (like some of Springsteen’s, fr’instance) they need to push the song forward.

Line 8: But just for now I let the spring and storm return

My favorite line of the verse, and a great summation of what it should have evoked, the sense of weather changing, lovers returning, adventure straight ahead.

A note about the chorus:

I left my heart to the wild hunt a-comin
I live until the call
And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone
Yes I’ll be leavin’ in the fall

To my ear, this is just off, though it fits with the verse. The first two lines are ok, but the second two somehow don’t work and rob the rest of their strength by telegraphing how everything is going to work out. In a song that is all about evoking possibility, the last two lines cheat that evocation. (I’m still not getting my problem with the words correct, but this is as close as I can come right now.)

Should a song like ‘The Wild Hunt’ get this kind of close reading? I don’t know. I shy away from the kind of writing I did here, putting each phrase under a microscope, under the theory that popular music generally aims for the ‘ragged but right’ quality in which there’s a lot of leeway for individual details to be off, as long as the overall sense is correct.

But ‘The Wild Hunt’ – a giant, on-going reference to Dylan in sound and spirit – demands we take it seriously. It says ‘an important voice has arrived.’

The other great example of this kind of writing was Springsteen’s first album, which was even more nonsensical in places – remember “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer…”? And therein lies a critical difference: Springsteen telegraphed his punch by his wordplay. He said, in essence, ‘These words are here because they sound good.’ And then he backed up the nonsense by landing on a chorus that pulled things together, rather than further dispersing the words and feelings of the song. You can sing along to ‘Blinded By The Light’ and there is so much fun in the song, you want to.

He then went onto put out a brilliant, lasting album of lyrical madness, The Wild, The innocent And The E Street Shuffle, before beginning the paring down that eventually marked his mature style. Tallest Man is at a similar point: can he make not only exuberant music, but music that sticks with you? The words will tell.

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