How To Make The Whole World Sing: “Ashes Of American Flags”

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Detail is a powerful tool in songwriting. When used correctly, it can be the perfect element to achieve inclusivity, to bring a listener into your song: witness the torn shoulder of the antagonist in Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or perhaps the box that sits “to the left, to the left” in Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.” Detail can also, when used incorrectly, drag your composition down and out of a listener’s scope of interest faster than you can say “sack of bricks.” There are far too many examples of this to mention (Weird Al’s “Like A Surgeon” comes to mind.)

So how much detail is just enough?

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is a master of parsimonious description. He rarely just comes out and says exactly what he means about anything, but his lyrics have a way of arousing our interest like a smile from a good-looking stranger across a room. Tweedy reels us in, line by line, creating a mood that is steeped in well-drawn visual detail shrouded in a little smoke. Check out the opening verse in “The Ashes Of American Flags” from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:

The cash machine is blue and green

For a hundred in twenties and a small service fee

I could spend three dollars and sixty-three cents

On Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes

I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck

How hot and sorrowful, the machine begs for luck

In the first four lines we learn three details: the color of the ATM machine, what it’s doing (or possibly why it’s blue and green?) and how Tweedy might respond to the actions of the machine. Then something very important happens: Tweedy takes a moment to let us into a rather abstract inner thought, then connects the thought back to the banking device.

The fifth line in the stanza is the point at which just enough detail could have turned into too much. What if the line had been, say, the rest of Tweedy’s shopping list? Or perhaps a brief commentary on the consistency of the sidewalk? Would a tirade about the poisons in Diet Coke have worked nicely? Maybe, but let’s assume that Tweedy knew exactly what he was doing by giving us a brief respite from the minutiae by taking us into his head before delivering the kicker:

How hot and sorrowful, the machine begs for luck

I do not claim to know exactly what “Ashes Of American Flags” is about. But that is beside the point. The more important thing is that, right from the first verse, Tweedy has me really wanting it to be about something. Why? Because he has artfully utilized just the right amount of detail to infuse a boring, inanimate object with connectivity. Suddenly, the cash machine is him, or maybe all of us. And I want to know what’s it might do next.

This is called creating inclusivity. As songwriters, we want our listeners to have a personal experience with our songs. We want them to be emotionally, intellectually and spiritually invested in them. When writing, as in conversation, it is easy to become too self-involved and forget that someone else is listening. To communicate effectively, we have to remember to always include the listener in the process. Using just the right amount of detail makes it easier for them to make our songs their songs.

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  1. What a wonderful example to include as a demonstration of “parsimonious description.” Strangely, Jeff Tweedy has often been criticized – by non-fans, I would venture – for mulling over static and inert imagery. What many fail to examine (or not examine, which might be the point, after all) is the warmth that pervades his best writing – read “Flags”, “Chinese Apple” (later “Heavy Metal Drummer”), and “Muzzle of Bees.” In fact, that last work employs so much visual and sonic vividity that it’s hard to know where to start. To paraphrase L. Cohen, some great works need not be “about” anything; they simply have an effect. The pulse, for lack of clearer terms, of J. Tweedy’s work may be said to be that of an ocean of barely discernible, quasi-primitive details, all spontaneously swimming toward a gratifying coda of emotional resolution: As always, the genius lies in a symbiosis of the simplistic and the ambiguous. He has probably listened to “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” more than once!

  2. I think a lot of Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics employ a puzzle of synecdoche, where he describes parts in vivid detail, without revealing the larger narrative. The listener/reader is compelled to fill in the gaps with their own experience, and so the songs have a Rorschach effect in their emotional resonance.

  3. I have been on a Wilco Kick lately. He is one of those songwriters I can listen to forever, and still find something new. It’s amazing to read through those songs. Thank you for your point of view. It’s such a simply thing, show don’t tell, but as songwriters it’s nice to reminded.

  4. Very astute point about synecdoche, ‘Housewife; to my knowledge, few songwriters, outside of Dylan and perhaps Mike Scott, have used this application to great affect (by the latter, I am thinking of “Church Not Made with Hands”, “Old England”, and “December”). I am excited to have discovered Jeff Tweedy: He ranks up there in the pantheon of great rock writers for me (Young, Dylan, Byrne…).

  5. Jeff Tweedy is master of offbeat imagery to be sure! But what is with the knock on Weird Al? Like A Surgeon is done purely for comedic effect and it is a parody at that so it had to fit the constraints of the already reconized pop song. Al is a musical genius and I do not say that lightly! Listen to his original, non-parody songs to really hear some top notch writing…

  6. Sorry Odd Joe, that was a cheap shot. But I have a weak stomach for medical details and I figured Al could take a nudge in the ribs if anyone could. “Eat It” really does it for me, by the way. I will check out his non-parody stuff, too.

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