November 20, 2011

30 Songs #17 - Wound Down: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 2

Adam vs. Keir, May '98: When Cheap Hair Dye Attacks!

This week's "30 Songs" column is a bit late—and a bit shorter than usual—because on Friday, I was truly fried, and in no fit state to write about it. Same with yesterday, actually—but now's as good a time as any for Round Two of "These Lyrics Need a Rewrite, Dude." Today's victim is "Wound Down," which like "Kid Icarus," is an otherwise great tune with lyrics that don't really live up to the song's potential. The music is a trippy little waltz written by Adam, not too far removed from Brian's future space-jams in Honey White. I love the guitar solo tone—it's the classic "old Faithful" sound of Adam's Hamer—its reverb takes up enough space for Bryn to switches from guitar to keyboard. Have a listen:

I'm only half-joking when I say "these lyrics need a rewrite"; in the last two "30 Songs" posts I've mentioned my odd inability to remember what I was thinking when writing song lyrics in late 1997 and early 1998. That's not saying "what was I thinking?" in a bad way—I'm sure that work probably passes as "impressionistic" in some circles—and it's not to say I don't like these songs, but I've done much better since then.

I blame it on the setting sometimes, but hanging subpar creativity on late-'90s Isla Vista is also too easy; I learned quickly enough how to channel that kind of wild-party-for-rich-kids craziness into some great work. It's not to make excuses for sloppy juvenilia either, though—this was from a time when, for lots of reasons, I was probably certifiable and behaving in weird, out-of-character ways. Maybe these nebulously vague lyrics were a way for the wimpier, earnestly sensitive Keir of 1996 to try and survive the allegedly substance-abusing, womanizing Keir of 1997…but I doubt that. Neither of those guys would have let this one slip out:

"Wound Down"

The sun is bright behind your head
Looks like a crown of neon light
The sun is bright behind your head
You know I swear it don't look quite right

I notice you there and I look into your eyes
Looks like a seasick mind running nowhere to hide
I notice you there and I look into your eyes
I see a rewound soul when they open wide

I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
The most electrifying is a bold of fraud
I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
but when you look away it's a bullet from God

I wonder what it's like without you coming around
You say you don't have time to think about that now
I wonder what it's like without you coming around
Suppose that it resembles world round wound down

Okay, well…there's one good line in there—the one that I took and blew up into a whole new song for another band four years later—but that's no excuse for drowning Adam's tune (and his vocals!) in mushy meaninglessness. It had great potential and I think that's what did me in—the intimidation of writing a concrete, powerful thing to ride herd over a powerfully evocative tune. It could also be that I didn't have the cerebral vocabulary to be a "lyricist" yet. Oh sure, I'd re-absorbed the omnipotent mid-'60s Bob Dylan in all his glory about a year before, but that mostly helped me spit out the goofy, semi-parody blues lyrics for the first Mojo Wire album. I hadn't delved into Elvis Costello's stuff yet either—so I didn't have a good model of what "good lyrics" were supposed to look like. Not that those two guys are the be-all, end-all approach—but I wasn't in a position to learn from, or apply, any lessons from their work.

I didn't know how to write lines for a song that wasn't a twelve-bar blues, and I guess I didn't know how to apply figurative meaning to a lyric; didn't know how to work with language creatively (or at least not like I was beginning to be trained to do analytically, in UCSB's English department). Once I realized that combining the two skills was the way to go, at least for me, lyric-writing got both easier and tougher—but I also got better at it. Sadly, that realization didn't arrive in time to save "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down," or "Sunset Down" (more on that last one next week), and I'm not sure why I felt pressure to finish something, anything in order to finish the album. Why finish the album, and why so soon after the first one? I tried to answer that a while ago in this essay about the album as a whole:

The more scattered things seemed to become, the more I [wanted] to get a handle on everything and organize it into some sort of presentable form. Adam and Bryn were agreeable—hey, why not release another album?—but that very impulse to complete things quickly and effectively doomed the whole collection.
Despite all that baggage—again, that Keir-imposed baggage that failed the tune itself—"Wound Down" does have a brief post-Rocket Fuel legacy; like "Kid Icarus," I also tried to rewrite it a year later, making a quiet demo of that unsuccessful attempt:

mp3: "Wound Down" (rewrite demo, 7/99)

Also like "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down" had a brief live history for a few Mojo Wire gigs in 1999; it closed the sets at our two Sigma Phi Epsilon shows that year, but didn't mesh well with the harder-rocking Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup. I added "Wound Down" to the Mojo Wire best-of compilation in 2003 as well—it was, after all, a great example of both the good and not-as-good-as-it-should-be aspects of the Rocket Fuel album. Unlike "Kid Icarus," the take of "Wound Down" is basically identical to its original version:

That's about all there is to it, for me, as far as "Wound Down" is concerned. It's certainly not a bad song, but it's a subpar lyric that needs a rewrite—not unlike several others I've done—so I'm finding it hard to be objective about it (or any of the others, actually). If I haven't rewritten it by now, though, I'm not sure I will—and that goes for the other subpar lyrics as well. Jonathan Mayer said something to me once about tinkering with, and polishing past work, while we were in the studio with Honey White. He said, basically, "why try to mess with stuff you've already done? It'll be different, and you know it will be different—so why not just focus on writing some new, better songs instead?"

Words to create by, for sure. I'll do one more round of this next week, but then I feel like it should be time for some really good ones again. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, February 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, March 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor by the Mojo Wire

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