November 27, 2011

30 Songs #18 - Sunset Down: Egyptian Rivers and Other Psychoses

Yes, it's a stupid pun. No, I don't care.

Denial is a powerful emotion, and I'd guess that it fuels about 80-90% of pop song lyrics out there. So many lyrics seem to be about denying reality in favor of something better, or something (mis)remembered, or something idealized, or any number of unrealistic expectations or assumptions. People have this marvelous ability to totally disbelieve something that's often right in front of their face. Sometimes that's psychologically helpful, like the ability to shrug off 50,000 deaths-by-tsunami (if our brains actually were affected by each of those deaths, we'd shut down emotionally), but usually it's more to do with petty personal failings or other pathetic states of being. This week's "30 Songs" entry, the Mojo Wire ballad "Sunset Down," has some of the former but is mostly the latter. Listen:

"Sunset Down" was written as a mollifying little injection of denial that helped me through a bad breakup near the end of my junior year at UCSB (April '98), but it ultimately failed for attacking the symptoms (getting dumped by a girl) instead of going after the big reason for my melodramatic angst (inability to deal with rejection because of my parents' divorce). Sounds like fun, huh? Don't worry, that's about as psychoanalytical as this post will get—but I have to touch on the serious stuff and get it out of the way early, because the earnest hypersensitivity that pervades most of my earlier lyrics is a huge crutch. It's impossible to explain without looking like some trembling skid-mark of weakness, but at the time it's the only way to get through the afflictions of youth's incomplete neurophysiology, right? Yikes, and it's only taken me about two paragraphs to start sounding like Sting. Maybe we should get through this quickly and get to some more interesting stuff next week.

So, the music: basically, Adam came up with a mellow, acoustic guitar piece that we all agreed would be the perfect sound to wrap up the third Mojo Wire album—a semi-acoustic collection of ragged surf-noir demos called Seaside Hamlet Skids. The album in general was about escapism, both individually and collectively—which is really easy to perceive now, but not so much while we were making it. It's perfectly sequenced, with the overall feeling of harmless denial fermenting into something more and more poisonous by the final song. "Sunset Down" pulls off a cute little coup by cloaking that ugliness in easy-listening clich├ęs: major-key acoustic guitar, ethereal keyboards, semi-whispered vocals, and no percussion. The only clue that something's not quite right is the lyric's irregular structure—or even lack of structure. Here it is:

"Sunet Down"

The heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today
I have been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations

losing every lead learning how to bleed
spinning like a toy isolate destroy

You have no idea what you did to me
and lately you’re so sure it’s good to be without security
although all things end baby all things end
I just don't know when I begin again
so honey take a bow, I hope you're happy now
that almost everyone can see that day is done

Cause I’ve been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations
spinning like a toy isolate destroy
your security is no good to me
you have no idea what you did to me

I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
cause the heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today

That structural irregularity works in the song's favor, and more than just as a novelty. Even so, most of the lines hang on clumsy rhymes like "nations/reservations," and the themes were lame and cheesy (things strung together like sunsets and endings). The only line I still really like is "the heat is high but I know my way and nothing so wrong will happen today," because it's completely delusional; you only ever say something that confident when you've been through a hell of a wringer and you feel like crap. Another good couplet is "losing every lead/learning how to bleed" (inserted in a Costello-ripoff rewrite a year later). Both are things that you lie to yourself about for the sheer sake of functioning after a tragedy. I had no such tragedy worse than being dumped, so I was just being a big baby, but at least I knew the line was bogus and knew it had to be delivered with a healthy smirk.

Actually, that irregularity is something I'm struggling to repeat—or at least reinvent—in lyrics I'm trying to finish right now, since I'm finding myself falling back into the same old twelve-bar, 14-to-16-syllable-per-line formula that "Sunset Down" so creatively side-steps. It has repeated lines in there, which sort of balances out the lack of a chorus, and the same "heat is high but I know my way" couplet book-ends the song. That's a nice touch that I'm slightly surprised I'd thought of at the time. You know how people often dismiss things they've done as a younger person, in that "was I really that smart back then" way? I feel like that when looking over these lyrics today. For something that I don't consider—figuratively at least—among my best work, it's a structural/process lesson worth revisiting, for sure.

This song doesn't have much of a legacy; it was never played live, so it's sort of frozen in time—which, while interesting on some level, doesn't speak well for its longevity. As mentioned above, though, I did tweak the lyric slightly—near the tail end of the "let's remake the Mojo classics" period of 2000-2001—and recorded that in early 2002 with only my echo-bass as accompaniment, which sounds like this:

mp3: "Sunset Down" (remake, 8/02)

That take was good, but a dead end. Interesting, but not enough of a reinvention to make the recording work on its own, outside of a supporting album's sequence—let alone in concert. Come to think of it, though, if "Sunset Down" has no live show history, that means that if we do revive it, we can totally rebuild it from the ground up—like Honey White did for "Lightning Rod" or "One Last Hallelujah." Maybe "Sunset Down" would work as a stuttering surf rocker with an irregular time signature, like 5/4 or 9/8 or something. Hmmm…

Okay, well, now that I've self-flagellated for three weeks over hobbling some of Adam's best tunes with subpar, vaguely impressionistic lyrics, let's move on, shall we? I thought about neutralizing this trend with the best one I wrote for a song of his, "Stranded"—but that will fit better grouped with other lyrics. I also thought—since early winter 2011 marks not only the fifteenth anniversary of the first Mojo Wire gigs, but also the tenth anniversary of that band's breakup—about going even further back into Mojo Wire history for our earliest lyrics. However, it's probably not a good idea to jump from one series of relatively lightweight stuff to another, differently juvenile set of lyrics—goofy blues-parodying things that were mostly vehicles for Adam's gritty vocals.

Gotta come up with some passable in-between examples, then. I think I can do that, for the next three entries, at least. Let's say that next week, I'll throw together something that melded sneering breakup lyrics, video game ripoff music, and blistering surf guitar into one of the most long-lived Mojo Wire songs ever. Oh, the suspense.

Finally, this post was brought to you by the Radiohead song "House of Cards," with its one-word chorus of (you guessed it) "Denial." You're welcome:

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, May 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, June 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire


  1. Ooh ooh! I know which one's coming next!

    Every so often I come back to Mojo Wire songs that could be reinvented too. Maybe in the future we'll be able to revisit a couple of them you've featured here.

  2. Yeah, I think you're the only one who'd guess that. I expect some cogent commentary and analytical brilliance from you next week, then.

    Re: revisiting old stuff—sometimes I'm in the mood to do that, and sometimes I feel like completing something new. Like that thing Jon the engineer told us in the studio, remember? Why not focus that energy on doing something new?

    But I know what you mean. I'm definitely coming to an end of a lyrical cycle (in this case the WOYG/nostalgia-fuelled ones), so maybe that will be the right time to revisit the older stuff.


Related Posts with Thumbnails