Lilja 4-Ever

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Because I’m heat-addled and writer’s-blocked, I’m simply gonna write what’s been on my mind today, which happens to be more about my songwriting process than anybody could ever possibly need to know. It was either that, or post this song without any annotation whatsoever. Feel free to scroll directly down to the Keef quote far below.

“Too Far” is a rare case where the music arrived almost complete, an entire landscape I could hear (and see) in my head, right down to the bongos (and as God is my witness, for all my borderline psychoses, I’ve never heard bongos in my head before). But alas, it arrived with only two lines of lyrics (the first line each of the verse and the chorus), so I was stuck in a position I rarely let myself get into, having a fully fleshed-out backing track/melody and trying to write the lyrics on paper separately, after the fact. Of course there’s usually some tinkering — a line here, a verse there — but it’s always better when music and lyrics evolve together. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of “composing” lyrics as something removed from the greater whole — you almost always end up with something that sounds forced and over-thought and fussed-over.

So, I could refine this a little bit more, but the risk is to mess with it too much until you’re miles away from shore and no way back. I’ve lost better songs than this one that way. And performance matters here, the way the lyrics are sung. When you write out lyrics you tend to be very literal about singing the words rather than the sounds. It’s just a psychological thing. But the more/longer you sing a song, the more it becomes second-nature and you can’t help but smooth it out so it sounds right — you stop worrying about literal meaning so much, as long as you can keep the picture in your head.

Which is to say, I think these lyrics will be fine as they are (knock wood), they just need to age a while in the bottle. The only thing I might change before this song ever gets played live is something Jon pointed out the other day — that the phrase “nobody can say” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the song. The other half of that line, which ends on the words “too far,” sounds right to me (not to mention, it contains the song’s nominal title) but there’s undoubtedly a better, truer way to get there, and to convey the idea that no journey is too far to travel, no distance too far to fall.

This is Keith Richards talking about his songwriting process:

“Usually it will come with the hook, the basic idea. As for the verses and bridge, the idea of writing a song in front of the music is virtually pointless, a very rare thing with me. Now and again I might get a verse down beforehand in prose, but the way I’ve always written songs is get a nice chord sequence and get it played well. Then I’ll listen to it for a long time and decide where a voice should come. I go through a lot of what we call ‘vowel movement’, when you get in front of a microphone and forget what the hell the song is supposed to be about, and just start to sing ‘eee, oooo, aaah’. There’s nothing worse than an ‘eee’ sound coming when you should have an ‘aaaaah’. You let the vowels fit in with the track and add the consonants later, and they become the words. This way, you know what you’re aiming at sound-wise. The lyrics are very important, but to me they can come almost at the last minute. The song will form itself around the vowel movement. A regular vowel movement,” he cackles. “We like that in a band…”

And this is from Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”, a Devastationalist poem, if ever there was one:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Too Far

Meet me in the meadow past the railroad station
Oh, my dimpled little paisley swain
Show me all the flowers and the constellations
Drown me in the thunder and the rain

Would you believe a diamond ring?
Would you believe the stars?
Tip me over, make it sting
And nobody could say I’ve come too far

Meet me in the meadow past the railroad station
Meet me under cover of the stars
Roll me in the flowers and the constellations
Everything I’ll ever have is yours

Would you prefer a diamond ring
To a wilted little daisy chain?
Lift me up, make me sing
And nobody can say I fell too far

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5 Replies to “Lilja 4-Ever”

  1. Maybe it’s just those “Pet Sounds” bongos… and the borderline psychosis… but this song reminds me of mid-period Beach Boys for some reason. It might be slightly out of place on “Pet Sounds” but it would fit right on “Surf’s Up” or “Carl & The Passions”. Although the Beach Boys would have overdubbed more than one or two harmony vocals, of course.

  2. I obviously had a lot of, er, issues with this one, and prevailed upon trusted friends for more than the usual amount of assistance and feedback — so thank you to them, and to both of you for taking the time to leave your exceptionally kind comments. Thank you.

    Also, I should probably confess that I’ve never been able to buy into the whole Beach Boys thing (except for one exceptional Losers Lounge, over a decade ago — still my fondest LL memory), and I’ve always been sllightly ashamed of that fact. (And I am speaking as a person who has gone through long periods where I romanticized “California” beyond all reason.) I keep trying — perhaps one day the penny will drop.

  3. Hey, I’m not a total Philistine! I do own “Pet Sounds,” and I do think the undertow of sadness in the best Brian Wilson songs (like “Caroline, No”) is astonishing. So, who knows — it was the farthest thing from my mind, but maybe those bongos snuck in there subconsciously…?

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