Narrative in Song

Oliver Arditi wrote a very thorough review of Three Rows of Teeth at the end of last month.

I am hugely flattered that anyone might write something so in depth based on my stuff, and tickled by the use of the word ‘habitué’ to describe you, dear listener.

I wouldn’t call you ‘habitués’ of my music. I’d call you listeners. Music monkeys. Eared scum.

No I wouldn’t really, but I do like the phrase ‘eared scum’.

Anyway, I digest…

Oliver, being a speculative fiction writer himself, talks about the narrative elements of my songs and rightly identifies a hint of musical theatre in them.

Tis true, tis true. I like a song with a story and have enjoyed several musicals. I know many of them are lightweight, but Phantom of the Opera, Jekyll and Hyde, Les Mis, Sweeney Todd – all of these I know and love. I know admitting so will wipe away whatever vestiges of street cred I might have had left, but a guilty pleasure wouldn’t be a guilty pleasure if you didn’t admit to it.

I also love Meatloaf, a few bits of folk and a hell of a lot of metal and prog rock that also has a narrative focus. I’ve never been keen on opera, mostly because of the singing style, but that aside, narrative music appeals to me.

That said, here are three works of narrative popular music that I have enjoyed and would recommend.

Operation Mindcrime by Queensryche

You have to be able to cope with 80s metal hairstyles and cheesy metal to full enjoy this one, so if those aren’t your thing best to stay clear. Operation Mindcrime however, is bloody fantastic. Musically it’s all singalong choruses and duelling guitar solos. The story is a relatively well-developed one about hypnosis, revolutionaries, madness and the evil, manipulative ‘Dr x’. It’s very comic book in tone – melodramatic and emo – which isn’t a criticism as far as I’m concerned.

There was a sequel, which has some okay songs on it and continues the story, but I wouldn’t call it essential. The original however is well worth a listen.

Sweeney Todd

No, not the movie. That’s okay, but actors aren’t singers and you want to hear this with proper singers. Again, this is pure, macabre melodrama – gore and murder and lust and innocence-destroyed. And lots of dark humour. The recent London cast is very good, as is the original recording (although the accents are a little interesting on that as the American singers understandably don’t get every cockney vowel sounding perfect).

Musically this is complicated stuff for the West End – Sondheim has a deft hand with lyrics and a very pleasing attitude to discord. He has a way of mixing simple melody with off-colour harmony that perfectly complements the subject matter.

Outside – The Diaries of Nathan Adler, or The Murder of Baby Grace Blue, a gothic drama hyper-cycle

More melodrama and dark humour here (I know what I like) in the fourth album that Bowie and Eno made together. It may be heresy to say it, but for me this is a far stronger work than the original Berlin albums they made together.

Of course it is not nearly as influential as them, but it’s a more accomplished work and a more satisfying listen on the whole. However, it suffers somewhat from the superfluous addition of ‘Strangers when we meet’ at the end – which apparently was added at the record company’s behest when they realised what an uncommercial record Bowie had made. A perfectlygood song, but out of place on this album.

Outside’s story, told in the liner notes, details PI Nathan Adler’s investigation of the murder of Baby Grace, who’s death appears to be connected to some rather unlikely works of modern art.

Modern Art was clearly an influence – At the time Bowie and the artist Damien Hirst were apparently concocting plans to attach the head and genitals of a bull to the corpse of a man who had left his body to art – or so the story goes. A similar image can be seen in the liner notes for the album.

Lyrically Outside is a masterpiece. The album was written via improvisations, with Bowie running his story through randomisation software to create some truly unhinged nonsense – The Voyeur of Utterdestruction as Beauty – which nevertheless hints at meaning because of it’s origin as a coherent story.

Musically it achieves amazing things too – neon gothic layers of synth and guitar, samples and percussion. Even an update on Major Tom in the form of ‘Hello Spaceboy’.

Outside does what I think the best narrative songs do – asks questions, gives hints to the story, but doesn’t spell everything out.

Of course you can’t do that with musicals like Sweeney Todd where the point is to tell a story. Outside is primarily an album of music that uses narrative and one of its ingredients – something that I tend to do with my own music.

So far my musical narratives have been steampunk. I think I have maybe one more thing to say that fits into that genre, before I try my hand at another. I may be wrong, we’ll see what the muses say, but whatever I do next, narrative is sure to play a big part in it.

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