>Quick note: For those who haven’t heard, Alex Chilton–lead singer and songwriter of Big Star–died last night. I’ve written about Big Star a lot in this space–they’re one of my all-time favorites, and Chilton was the type of songwriter who makes others want to get into it. There’s not much I can say that his songs haven’t said better.
I’ll close with this, and then head on for the Song of the Week:
Song of the Week: The Killers, “All These Things That I’ve Done“
“Somebody Told Me”–the first single for the Killers’ first album–made them stars. “Mr. Brightside,” their even bigger follow-up, made them the hottest band of the year. But if you ask fans today their favorite song off Hot Fuss, most will say “All These Things That I’ve Done.” It was something of an unofficial third single–too good not to play, but too long and sprawling to easily pitch–that retroactively became more popular than the two preceding “hits.”
So what makes “All These Things That I’ve Done” a great and massively popular song? There’s the Queen-influenced grandeur of the song’s composition and production; it aims high. There’s the great, dynamic, ever-shifting melody. There’s the vaguely articulated, universally-loved theme of “my back’s against the wall, but my head’s held high.” It seems to occupy rock bottom, but sounds like cloud nine. It’s a low point, but steadfastly hopeful, selfless, defiant and (ultimately) joyful. Catchy melodies and counter-melodies fill every nook and cranny. For such a major production, it sounds effortless and genuinely inspired.
It does a lot of things well.
But I think it became a fan favorite for one line, its climactic refrain (2:40): “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” Of course, the execution of this section (the band’s rev-up, the chant-able melody, etc.) accounts for its success. It’s a triumphant, winning moment. But it’s really successful because of a catchy lyric, an idea given to me by a friend years ago.
I’d always used “catchy” to describe pop-friendly melodies–that is, memorable tunes that stick with you. But my friend–a major fan of this song, but not the Killers–insisted “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” is a catchy lyric. It’s evocative, seems meaningful, is hugely memorable (especially in the context of the song), and you want to sing along to it. In one way, this is arguably the song’s worst lyric; it feels important, but it means nothing. Yet it’s also the song’s best lyric, because it clearly resonates with the audience in an indefinable way. It’s nonsense, but it connects.
It’s a good lesson for any songwriter: a good lyric, no matter how overtly smart, has to connect. As much as I admire writers like Elvis Costello and Josh Ritter, I appreciate their songs intellectually more than I love their songs emotionally. It’s hard to write a smart lyric, but it may be even harder to write a catchy one.
What are some other “catchy lyrics”? Can you think of some other stand-out lines that roped you into a song–even a song you wouldn’t otherwise like?
Not a souldier,