On Lyrics & “Monoliths”

Hey all! So, as some of you may have heard via the Twitter, we’ve got a new track coming out on 6/14 called Monoliths and I wanted to take some time to talk about the lyrics for the song, and lyrics in general. I thought it might be an interesting topic to explore, but of course if you don’t care I completely respect your decision (in Minecraft).

Lyrics have always been as much of a joy as a struggle for me, but the older I get the more I grapple with my lyrical multiple personalities.

I was once told great poetry is “saying exactly what you want to say in the fewest words possible”. What exactly do you want to say, and how do you say it with impact and without belaboring the point?

To take a clichéd example, if you want to say “I love you”, is that what you would write or say to really get your point across? What does love mean to you? How do you express this specific love? Does it feel unique? If yes, then so shouldn’t your words? Saying “I love you” suddenly may not be enough, because it doesn’t really say exactly what you want to say (even if it is the fewest words possible).

On the other side of things, you might be able to express your love in a few sentences or paragraphs in a really beautiful, original way. But can you turn those few sentences back into a few words, or a single sentence, and still have the same impact?

There are of course some “tricks of the trade” — simile and metaphor, for example.

When I think of simile this line from 311’s “Jackolantern’s Weather” always pops into my head:

“When I describe I’m a scribe with a metaphor / I use a simile lightly ’cause that shit’s played / the common way most rhymes are made”.

In fairness, I think simile can be used eloquently and sometimes really is the best tool for the job, but often can be the easy way out and that will show. But I digress. I don’t want to get too deep into this here(I could write a book on my beliefs, and many people have).

I believe song lyrics in some ways are poetry, but in many others they are not. What should a song really do? Many of the most popular songs have an abundance of clichéd lyrics.

Sometimes “I love you” is what resonates. Whether it’s the way that it is sang, the context it’s in, or simply that it’s something so many people have thought and said before and so it’s perfectly relatable.

I have been told by so many people their favorite lyric from our track Eyes Closed is “And oh my god, you’re beautiful”. In truth, it’s a lyric I really hated for a long time — I found it cheesy! But I am just one subjective point of view, and after having received the same feedback time and time again, I’ve come to appreciate there’s something about it that resonates with people.

I find myself often trying to find balance between what is relatable and what is poetic. I also think there’s a difference between story telling and poetry, and song lyrics can and maybe should be both, but always fall somewhere on a spectrum and where you land on that spectrum can be a choice and become a powerful tool in your writing.

By listening to music and studying lyrics, I’ve been able to identify and expose some of my weaknesses. The problem is that there are many, and I can only work on so much at once!

Still, I strive to be better and to stretch my boundaries and discover and grow my own lyrical style. I feel so far from where I want to be, but I hope with every song I write I can make some improvements.

I wrote the first draft of Monoliths about 5 years ago now, shortly after moving to Nashville. I’ll drop the lyrics here and walk through them some:

— — — — — — — — — — —

It was cold in Atlanta
A frigid wind dragged you in
Sat you down beside my kin

And we drove to Savannah
Sullen trees bearing leaves
Susurrating in the breeze

Somewhere there’s a fever rising up
Hearts apprised of universal dust
But if it’s not enough it’s not enough
The monoliths of metal turn to rust

When we bailed out of Georgia
There was fire in the air
Orphaned houses everywhere

So you wept in a corner
Singing names of your friends
Who you’ll never hold again

Somewhere there’s a fever rising up
Hearts apprised of universal dust
And if it’s not enough it’s not enough
The monoliths of metal turn to rust

I’ve been waiting for this
For years for you
Walking around these heads in the ground
I’ve been stowing patience
For years for you
What do you need? What do you need me to do?

Somewhere there’s a fever rising up
Hearts apprised of universal dust
And if it’s not enough it’s not enough
The monoliths of metal turn to rust

— — — — — — — — — — —

One of the reasons I haven’t talked about lyrics much in the past is because I firmly believe lyrical interpretation is a subjective exercise, and each person’s meaning is no less or more valuable than someone else’s, or even the song writer’s. Songs are meant to be connected with, and however you do that is perfect. So, I hope this doesn’t spoil things too much, and please feel free to connect with this song however it means the most to you. I’ll try to explain things in a way that does leave some things open to interpretation, but forgive me if I miss!

One thing I should mention is that I, as a lyricist, have some common “genres” I write within. One of those is fantasy. Like most fantasy writing, there is grounding in reality, but not every song I write is about me or even someone or something I know (though certainly many are!). Monoliths is a fantasy song. It’s meant to express a thought or opinion through a romanticized version of something that never existed except inside of my head.

From a general perspective, the song is a reflection on the state of humanity and our lack of respect for our planet and fragile existence. It’s told through the perspective of two people (lovers, maybe?) traveling through the south (inspired by my time living here!) as humanity’s existence is collapsing due to some sort of now irreversible harm we’ve done to our planet. Carbon emissions, war, man made zombies, artificial intelligence deciding we’re a net negative… take your pick!

In the first stanza, lovebird/friend 2 has come to lovebird/friend 1’s home to seek refuge amongst them and their family. Just to call out some of what I was getting into earlier in this post, note I specifically chose the word “kin” as a nod to the south here. It’s not a word you really ever hear in New York (where I grew up) but is a pretty common word in the southern USA. It was a choice I made to give the song the vibe I wanted, to say something more about these people playing a role than just that they’re the family of one of our characters.

In stanza two our pair has taken off. In my mind, they’re leaving because they can’t stay. It’s supposed to sort of be that scene in all those end-of-the-world movies & books where two people are driving down a big open desolate country road just to get anywhere safe. Maybe they heard one of those national broadcasts saying “Come to Savannah! There is food and shelter, and no zombies!” Of course, we all know what happens when you follow those broadcasts…

On the way — away from the cities & populated areas —we get our first taste of what’s really going on.

One of my favorite things about driving around the south is the beautiful foliage you see everywhere. Lush forestry, moss covered cliffs, rolling rivers & waterfalls abound. But here our trees aren’t quite what they should be, whispering secrets amongst the silence of rural America.

The chorus is certainly the tell as if you didn’t know what was happening (and you shouldn’t yet), “The monoliths of metal turn to rust” will likely give you some idea. Clearly something has gone wrong.

There’s something else in the chorus which is near and dear to me, which is the line “Hearts apprised of universal dust”.

A theory I’ve come to embrace over the last decade or so is that due to the sheer boundlessness of the universe, logically the human species and our time here has a massively understated insignificance. I’m not going to dive down this rabbit hole, but hypothetically speaking I believe if we could all recognize this as fact (or at very least, possibility), it could help remove ourselves from our egos and see a great future where we work together to ensure the survival of our species.

If the human race disappeared tomorrow, the universe would not skip a beat. Earth would exist for billions of years to come, even beyond the point of the extinction of all life (human and non), until its surface gets so hot that Earth literally melts. Or maybe a gigantic asteroid comes and just blasts it to trillions of pieces. Or aliens come and laser it right into space dust! ZAP! POW! It feels derogatory to call them “aliens” for some reason. “Other sentient space beings”, let’s run with that.

The chorus is a statement about how even if we can recognize our inevitable demise, there is a point at which it no longer matters. A point where we can no longer reverse or prolong things, and we simply have to accept our fate.

In the third and fourth stanzas we learn a little more about what that fate is. The world feels “ablaze” (you can interpret “fires in the air” how you like — actual fires, the orange/red glow that happens from too much toxicity, etc.). People have abandoned (or maybe worse, died in) their homes.

And somewhere beyond “Pain and guilt” and between “Anger and bargaining” and “Depression”, our second character simply stops to cry & remember what was, and what we know will never be again.

This was the entirety of the song for roughly 4 years! When I took it to Suzie some months ago, we decided we’d give it a proper bridge (it just had an instrumental bridge), and wrote the bridge lyrics together. So there is some separation here in perspective, but that’s actually something I think we do often in our songs whether due to collaboration or just a natural writing style.

The bridge is a moment when character 1 actually feels relief that character 2 is having some sort of epiphany in their moment of crisis, and it’s also an ask: “So what exactly do we need to do to get people to wake the fuck up?”

And that’s it.

For me, lyrically Monoliths is more of a nod to my original style of writing than newer things I’ve been experimenting with, but it still feels like a maturity of the marriage between storytelling and poetry I think I’m always working towards. So, I feel pretty good about it, and am excited about the song in general.

I hope ya’ll dig it.

-Jesse

The Narrative is a band formed in 2006 by Jesse Gabriel & Suzie Zeldin. We are on an epic music journey together, forever.