Friday, November 9, 2007

Lyrics epiphiany

(Author's Note: If you promise to recognize that learning how to write lyrics is just as important as learning how to play guitar and compose melodies, I promise I won't foist critical analysis of rock songs on you all that much.)

While listening to Coverville, I heard a version of Overkill (originally by Men at Work) and had an epiphany. We all know the song--

"I can't get to sleep!
I'm tired of all the, something something!"

--It was played so much in the 80’s that we may even be sick of it. We tend to think of the song’s melody, and only a few lyrics stand out:

“Day after day, it reappears,
Night after night, my something, shows the fear,
Something here and fade away.”

As I listened to the cover version, I actually caught all the lyrics for the first time. And I realized that the song is a perfect statement about anxiety, and its obsessive nature. And it has narrative structure to boot!

The lyrics of the song paint a picture of a guy with insomnia.

I can't get to sleep
I think about the implications
Of diving in too deep
And possibly the complications

He knows that he’s only getting anxious because it’s night, and he’s alone. He knows he’s blowing things out of proportion.

Especially at night
I worry over situations
I know will be alright
Perahaps it’s just my imagination

Then we get the end of the verse, which resolves the anxiety. The melody line descends here, which evokes a sense of relaxation and quieting down of the mind:

Day after day it reappears
Night after night my heartbeat, shows the fear
Ghosts appear and fade away

In the second verse, though, it seems the anxiety is still there:

Alone between the sheets
Only brings exasperation

So, he goes for a walk to try to distract himself from the anxieties. It seems to work:

It's time to walk the streets
Smell the desperation
At least there's pretty lights
And though there's little variation
It nullifies the night
From overkill

Ah. Now we’ve gotten to the crux (and the title) of the song—Overkill. Which is the anxiety he’s feeling about every little thing, that he doesn’t need to worry about, but he’s worrying about anyway.

The end of the second ‘verse repeats the lines from the end of the first verse, showing that the anxiety does, in fact, go away again.

Yet, the anxiety comes back (the very next day—wait, wrong song), and it’s worse this time, which we know because he’s singing the melody an octave higher:

I can’t get to SLEEEEP!

But, the anxiety goes away, at least for a little while. The end of the verse, like the other two, is always the same:

Ghosts appear and fade away.

Even the form of the song evokes a recurrent, unavoidable anxiety. With the short lines, limited rhyme, and repetition of entire stanzas.

The beauty of this song is it’s such a common experience. Everyone’s gone though this at least once in their lives, where the cares of the world get you the wrong way and keep you up at night. You think you’ve got it under control and you’re calm, but then a stray thought sets you off again.

Very cool.

p.s. if this sort of thing interests you at all, I must recommend an amusing analysis of Jailhouse Rock by maestro George Hrab, from his Geologic Podcast episode 22. Unlike my work, his is edgy, laced with profanity, and very, very funny.

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