Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In the Morning: Roland Barthes, Elvis Costello, David Lowery

My senior year in college, I took a philosophy class called The Death of the Author. It was named after an essay by Roland Barthes and we spent an entire semester discussing how meaning is created in literature. Specifically, we kicked around whether the author or the reader is more responsible (or even at all responsible) for meaning and the implications of that conceit on art in general.

Which sounds kind of absurd.

But I find myself constantly referencing this class when it comes to writing and thinking about lyrics. I thought about it again as I read a profile of Elvis Costello in the New Yorker last week in which the author (natch) labeled Elvis a "textualist."

The exact quote is "[Elvis] doesn't feel that knowing a thing or two about an artist's private life can enhance one's appreciation or understanding of the work: he claims to be a textualist, at heart."

It goes on: "Some songs have lines in them which have very personal meanings and there's nothing to be gained by me sharing them," he said. "They're like an emotional anchor in the song, which means I can sing it and it has some significance to me." "It's too bad for the people who want to know, 'cause they ain't gonna know," he said. "They can't be there when whatever happened between those people happened. They don't know when you started loving them, or when you stopped loving them, or if you stopped loving them. And the songs don't tell the truth."

I find this quote particularly relevant in light of the fact that I am now in possession of the third Paper Arrows record: In the Morning. I got the final master on Friday, listened to it once as I drove it down to Bucktown to duplicate press copies, and then sat down with Andrea that night with a bottle of champagne to give it a closer listen in our living room.

And wow.

Sonically, it is really something else. Jay and Shane at I.V. just killed it. It is professional and polished while still bristling with energy. We recorded all the rhythm tracks together in a room and that approach (to my ears) translated to a more cohesive sound. I wrote most of the songs in the summer of 2009 during early morning writing sessions.

As I've described here, I'd get up at 5:30 a.m. every day during the week, write for an hour and a half, clean up, and then head to Baker, often writing on the train ride downtown. I demoed the results (13 new songs + 1 old) in the winter of 2009. Jay and I went over them, and I spent some serious time rewriting and revising in early 2010, finally settling on 10 songs to attack over three full days this August. In the following 3 months, I added some additional guitars and vocals, and finally it was mixed and mastered.

And on Friday, 18 months after I started writing for this record, we got to hear the finished product. I guess the best place to start talking about In the Morning is at the end of Things We Would Rather Lose.

I thought TWWRL was about recovery, about recovering from the loss which was chronicled on Look Alive. But upon further reflection, TWWRL was about the process of putting yourself into a position where you can recover from loss. It was about that murky middle-ground where you're strong enough to know you'll survive, but not strong enough to be fully vulnerable or whole again.

I had been thinking of the three Paper Arrows albums as seasons but I think they're really better conceived of in the following way:

Look Alive is the darkness just after sunset (which works nicely with the last song, When You Left, in which I sing "as darkness fell");

TWWRL is the sleepless night (concluding with finally being able to fall asleep);

and In the Morning is, well, pretty obviously the dawn of a new day.

Listening to In the Morning for the first time, I was really struck by the lyrics. I did more revising on this group of songs than I've ever done, and to my ears it resulted in the best and most concise lyrics I've ever written. They are a balance of simple and complex, literal and figurative, and direct and obtuse. There are images and metaphors I'm particularly proud of, carried over entire songs and even between songs, and there are lines in which I bypass poetics and speak in straight almost conversational terms.

Some songs contain little "anchors," words or references which coincide with very specific people, places, events and things in my life. Which brings me back to Roland Barthes and Elvis Costello.

At some point over the weekend, after listening to the disc, Andrea said something to the effect of she wished everyone could know how interconnected the lyrics are to real life. How carefully thought out and selected the images and references are. She obviously has a unique perspective and connection to the material, much of which is about her and us. So she gets a lot of the "anchors" on a very personal level. She gets the references to other songs, to other albums, to the actual events or things about which I'm writing.

I generally try to write with my previous songs in mind and to connect back to lyrics on other albums in an attempt to make the whole of the Paper Arrows catalogue tell a story. Really, my story. In a perfect world, in the post-modern philosophy world, the lyrics would mean exactly what they say without anyone knowing my story. Which I think they do.

I think if you knew nothing about me or my life over the last four years, you could listen to all three Paper Arrows records and have a pretty good grasp of what I'm talking about, what I've experienced. That being said, I also believe that art is an uniquely human condition. And I enjoy knowing a little something about the author and the conditions (both personal and historical) under which art was created.

So, I am going to do what I did for the last record, which is to go through the lyrics for each song on In the Morning and write a little bit about what they mean to me and the creative process. David Lowery (in my opinion, one of the best songwriters of the last 30 years) has been doing this over at his wonderful 300 Songs blog and if it's good enough for Mr. Lowery, it's good enough for me.

And screw Elvis and Roland.


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