“Down The Rabbit Hole”: How To Improve Phrasing In Your Songwriting

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Lyric instructor Pat Pattison adores the use of repetition in the Weepies’ song “Sirens.”

It’s fun in the rabbit hole – so many warrens to explore: twisting pathways that lead you from rhyme types to phrasing, from modes all the way through blues through the perfect setting of lyric to melody.

At this year’s Rocky Mountain Folk Festival, when I heard The Weepies play their song “Sirens,” I discovered a passage to one of the warrens that led me deep down the rabbit hole. Wanna come?

OK. Here’s the lyric, but I suggest you listen to the song below. What I have to say here includes stuff about rhythm and phrasing.

“Sirens”

(written by Steve Tannen/Deb Talan)

Here lie remains of a ship that sailed too close to the storm
Capsized, grounded, washed-up, sounded

I hear their voices, sirens singing in the street
I thought they might be calling out for you, for me
I hear their voices, sirens calling out emergency
for you, for me, for you, for you,
for you for you, for you, for you,
for me

Here lies the body of a captain
Foundered in the waves collected by the sirens
Oh, wise women of the sun
Oh, what have you done
Save this frail one left by Poseidon

I hear their voices, sirens singing in the street
I thought they might be calling out for you, for me
I hear their voices, sirens calling out emergency
For you, for me, for you, for you, for you
For you, for you, for you, for me
For you, for you, for you, for you
For you, for you, for me

I realize the lights of all retreating cars shine red
I realize you will not take back any of those words you’ve said
What did you say?
What did you say?
Why didn’t you stay?

Here lie all the photographs
All that I remember taken under, sent asunder
How I drift through history, a small Sargasso sea
Rising, sinking, still I’m thinking

(Chorus)

It’s a wonderful journey, playing the sirens of Greek mythology against the sirens of the city, creating a lovely metaphorical ambiguity: has he heard the call of another siren, luring him away? The ship is on the rocks, the sirens have taken possession of the captain, and only dead photographs remain. Ambulance/police sirens cry out in dismay: emergency!

As the story develops, we hear the chorus differently each time: it gains more weight after each verse section. In the 1st verse we see only the fate of the ship. The 2nd verse adds the weight of the captain to its chorus, he, the “frail one,” the you of the song. Both verses are pretty firmly ensconced in the Greek version of sirens. Of course, the bridge,

I realize the lights of all retreating cars shine red …

…Why didn’t you stay?

plus the photographs in the final verse, pull us to the other side of the metaphor, the lost love, the storm and the abandonment. The last chorus drips with emotion as both sides of the metaphor stack up and explode.

What I find remarkable and moving here isn’t only the metaphor, the vivid language and how smart the whole thing is both lyrically and musically, what I adore the most is the repetition.

First, it’s the seductive call of the Greek sirens, calling for you and me, but mostly for you (who has been lured away), while, at the same time the ambulance/police sirens comment that things aren’t going so well for you, but especially for me. Second, its rhythm cycles like a siren, and echoes one, while the repetition creates an almost hypnotic effect, much like the mythological song of the sirens. Third, the constant repetition of for you mirrors the protagonist’s obsession with you. But the thing that brought me to my feet was a subtle variation in the rhythm of the repeated phrases

For you, for me, for you, for you, for you

For you, for you, for you, for me

Listen. The pronouns anticipate the strong beats (1,2,3,4) and for is a simple 8th-note pickup to each one, creating an 8th-note/dotted quarter-note rhythm. But notice, at the very last for me, for is delayed and placed on the strong beat, making it stand out from all the other repetitions of for. The delay also creates musical comma, separating the last for me from the rest of the flow. This may not seem like much, but the change transforms the meaning of that final for me. Until then, the sirens simply trying to reach you and me, calling out

For you, for me, for you, for you, for you

For you, for you, for you,

But with this special placement of for on the stronger beat (and after the comma), two additional meanings of for stack up:

  1. calling out on my behalf (as in “my lawyer is signing for me.”), and
  2. calling out to give you as a gift for me. (as in “this package is for Bernice.”)

Remember:

Oh, wise women of the sun …

Save this frail one left by Poseidon

It’s like she’s begging the sirens to call out on her behalf and to return him to her. All because of one 8th-note shift in the repetition.

Good stuff. Amazing what close attention to phrasing can do. Spend some time running around in that particular warren. It’s waiting there for you. 

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. 

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