There’s no doubt that singer-songwriter and lyrical powerhouse Julien Baker knows how to write a killer song, but every songwriter has songs by other artists they wish they’d thought of first. Here, Baker takes us through the top five songs she wishes she’d written. Send us your picks for a chance to win a Martin D-35 guitar.
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1. “All Circles” by mewithoutYou
I am a huge fan of all Aaron Weiss’s lyrics, so it is hard to pick a favorite song. There are definitely mewithoutYou songs that have more emotional lines or more complex imagery, but “All Circles” is interesting because it only has the one main lyric “All circles presupposed will end where they begin but only in their leaving will they ever come back ’round, All circles presupposed …”.
The lyrics themselves are repetitive and circle back on themselves, and while the sentence is not a perfect technical palindrome, the syntax does have a circular, balanced structure; the end of the sentence is the same as the beginning, and could also be the beginning of the next (repeated) sentence. So the lyrics actually mimic the content of the song, and reinforce the assertion made by the lyric by literally being redundant and cyclical! How brilliant is that!
2. “Madhouse” by Kimbra
Aside from simply wishing I could think up or pull off the amazing sonic elements of Kimbra’s unique brand of intricate, maximalist pop, I wish I wrote this song because of the way the lyrics and music work together. The song’s theme of confusion, “chaos and disorder,” is expressed in the jarring, creepy instrumentation that’s full of off-the-wall sound effects and abrupt changes, as well as Kimbra’s ominous, half-whispered vocals on the verses … but then when the line “find that light shining in the dark times” occurs, the music shifts from mostly minor to mostly major, musically reflecting the lyrics’ optimistic turn! The lyrics are artfully simple — clever and layered without over-complicating things vocally, which opens the song up for experimentation with production and structure, and it’s all so intentional and well-planned. I think Kimbra proves that lyrics can be simple and still poetic, and that songs don’t have to be superficial just because they are pop songs.
3. “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon
The entire Graceland album is incredible to me. I have always been a fan of Paul Simon’s lyrics, but I like this one specifically because it is a song that has some serious themes yet communicates them in a disarming way. I mean, the song is downright fun-sounding. It has a catchy rhythm and melody, and the lyrics are even kind of quirky, like the line “why am I soft in the middle now?”– a familiar if shallow fear that signals the larger fears of human transience, and admittance of vanity that comes with aging. The song’s verses play on that competition between the micro and the macro of existential consciousness … the song’s protagonist goes on to think “I need a photo opportunity … I need a shot at redemption” further illustrating the tension between reinventing oneself in the get-in-shape-during-mid-life-crisis way and true redemption. Simon continues to explore the concept of self awareness in the slice-of-life portraits of people who are questioning their own existence … what if they die where they are? Where are their role models? What do they make of the strange, foreign places they find themselves in and how do they observe themselves within that place — but he provides a humorous aspect that relieves the heaviness and treats these big fears as quotidian, and that makes the song overall so clever and well-written to me. (Not to mention that INSANE bass solo …)
4. “Nothing Feels Good” by The Promise Ring
What is brilliant about this song is that a casual listener might be tempted to say “anyone could have written this song!”. It’s two chords, and the words are so straightforward and banal that it’s almost nonsensical. In the same way that Seinfeld has been called a “show about nothing,””Nothing Feels Good” is a song about literally NOTHING. Yet, much like Seinfeld, it’s that commonality of hyper-realistic experience that makes it incredibly relatable and endearing. But that’s precisely why the song is so incredible; yes, anyone could have cataloged observations about their life and compiled random statements about feelings and fears, but they didn’t. This song is the musical opposite of “purple prose”. It ignores the admonition that lyrics have to be metaphorical, convoluted, formally beautiful or significant to be art. I feel like when musicians write lyrics, there’s an unspoken pressure to be clever or literary, to make lyrics that sound like lyrics, but The Promise Ring’s lyrics in general seem to ignore that obligation completely — having that kind of boldness is why this band was so formative and influential in alternative music, in my opinion.
5. “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen
… have you heard “Jungleland”?