What's the Story?
Bardcore, Tool, and The Story Song
The Story Song
"Every song's a story."
My dad would say this when he would put me down for bed.
I'd ask him to read me a bedtime story, and he would put a CD on and tell me to listen to the words. Every song has a story to tell.
I remember listening to Steely Dan and being perplexed by songs like Charlie Freak or Dr. Wu. Admittedly, these were no stories for a child to hear before bed, but my dad wasn't wrong.
All songs tell a story.
As songwriters, we can be concrete or abstract in our storytelling.
I tend to be abstract, but I'll fully admit this is because I don't feel capable of the type of storytelling that Bruce Springsteen or Jimmy Webb employ. I've always had trouble using my words as a camera.
I want to get better at telling stories clearly through song.
I would have never considered this a topic if the universe hadn't conspired to put it in front of my mind. Songwriting educator Graham English recently wrote a post about storyboard templates that made me realize I struggle to be concrete in my storytelling. You should check out his article if you struggle to write story songs.
In addition to English's article that caused me to re-evaluate my storytelling style, my friend Cheryl turned me on to a new artist making waves in the independent music scene.
Ren & Bardcore
Last week I got together with some friends to watch videos by an artist named Ren. I had never heard him before, and my friend Charyl kept us in complete suspense in the weeks leading up to this get-together.
Charyl described Ren's music to me as Bardcore. She mentioned that some people considered him a performer in this genre, and my interest was immediately piqued.
As someone who produces music on a computer, I know its detrimental effects on the art form. I became interested in early music a few years back as an antidote to the overproduction of modern music. I'm still not the performer I want to be in that genre, but I still appreciate how urgent the music is because it isn't relying on recording technology.
That a genre like hardcore exists leads me to believe that there are enough people in the world feeling the lack of immediacy in modern recorded music. Paradoxically, the genre is most alive on YouTube. While the genre is mainly steeped in medieval music pastiche, I could see why some people would associate it with a performer like Ren.
Ren is a classic troubadour. His videos are a masterclass in guerilla performance and filmmaking. The lyrics are written from multiple character perspectives and unfold like short plays.
Ren captivates his audience with a multi-sensory experience. He conveys different characters with voices, body language, and narrative. His delivery ranges from a melodic singing style reminiscent of early Trojan ska records to the type of recitative that one expects in Italian opera. For modern audiences, this may be the first performer they've ever seen approach performance in this manner.
Ren tells stories about life's darker side. Having dealt with physical and mental illness, Ren brings the listener into the headspace of someone betrayed by body and psyche. In his song series, The Tale of Jenny and Screech, Ren depicts the unfortunate ends of three characters. The imagery that Ren invokes is second to none; he paints a picture of the horrid reality of street crime with lines like
Lines like this would be impressive enough poetry. Still, Ren brings all of this together in a manner evocative of some of the best 12th and 13th-century troubadours. Ren's lyrics are a great case study for anyone trying to tell stories clearly in their songwriting.
Analyze This: Tool’s Vicarious
Storytelling in song doesn't always follow a narrative arc; creating believable characters might be the first step in creating compelling narratives. This week I wanted to share some insights from analyzing the lyrics to the opening track of Tool's 10,000 Days, Vicarious.
Sticking with the thread of developing dark characters, Maynard James Keenan masterfully paints a picture of a bitter character drawn to the brutality that drives the 24-hour news cycle. This song was written when cable news networks banged the war drum hard to rally support for US military excursions in the Middle East post-9/11.
Maynard paints a picture, announces the character's thought process, and shows us how we are not so different from the character who vicariously gets his kicks from the suffering conveyed by the television.
The refrain, "I need to watch things die," twice resolves to some form of "from a distance" and juxtaposes the predatory nature of our main character against the passive voyeuristic manner in which this need is fulfilled. Maynard appeals to the primal reality that belies all human pretense: we are apex predators inclined to revert to our most base impulses.
Although Maynard uses very impressionistic imagery throughout the song, he grounds this imagery in lines with concrete images like, "eye on the TV, 'cause tragedy thrills me" and "stare like a junkie into the TV, stare like a zombie." This establishes the impressionistic imagery as the rapid-fire series of images one is prone to see on televised programming, almost as though one is flipping carelessly through channels.
This week was dark for lyric analysis, but sometimes life is dark. Songwriting can serve as a reminder and caution that these stories are also a part of the human experience. Horror is a strange literary device because it serves as a vehicle for humans to deal with the reality of entropy and chaos. By depicting the darker aspects of life in the arts, we can confront them in a safe, controlled environment in hopes that we can confront them when we encounter them in real life.