Keith Urban’s “Long Hot Summer” – A Study in Lyrical Layering

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Keith Urban - Long Hot SummerEvery distinct section of your song (verse, chorus, etc.) should treat lyrics differently and have a different goal. Lyrics, when done well, should show a clear 2- or 3-level design. Messing this up can cloud your message, and your song can fail to produce the impact that would make it a hit. The writing of an effective song lyric is something that can be practiced and honed. But first, let’s take a closer look at what’s meant by 3-level lyrical design.

Any good lyric will make some sort of emotional impact. But simply emoting throughout a song makes the singer sound like a whiner or complainer. Emotion needs to be handled carefully. The 3 levels of lyrical design that you see in most successful songs are:

  • 1st Layer (usually the verse): Lay some groundwork, explain a situation, tell a story, describe people. Emotional statements can be made, but your main job is to describe, not emote.
  • 2nd Layer (usually the chorus): Describe emotions, use imagery, metaphors, similes and other poetic devices that detail your emotional state. You may still need to expand on storytelling that began in the verse, but the focus should be on pulling the listener in with emotive imagery and a description of your state of mind.
  • 3rd layer (bridge or other miscellaneous section): Build the emotional level of your lyric. This is often achieved by quick fluctuations between story detail and emotive response.

In most successful songs, the differences between these three lyrical treatments is subtle. For a quick look at how this works, give Keith Urban’s hit “Long Hot Summer” (written by Urban and Richard Marx) a listen, and compare the way the verse, chorus and bridge have their own distinct goals. The verse gives details, the chorus provides emotion and imagery, and the bridge intensifies the emotional response:

Verse (Explain what’s going on) Chorus (Provide emotional response) Bridge (Intensify emotions with more details)
I can’t sleep ain’t no sleep a-coming/I’m just lying here thinking ’bout you/

I’m in deep falling deep into the picture/

In my mind of everything we’re gonna do…

It’s gonna be a long hot summer we should be together/With your feet up on the dashboard now/

Singing along with the radio/

it’s such a beautiful sound…

The only place that I wanna be is where you are/‘Cause any more than a heartbeat away is just too far/

Whoa whoa whoa

As you can see, the differences are subtle, and that’s the way you want it. Simply describing a story in the verse with no emotions attached will feel unnatural, and actually a little creepy. It’s an issue of balance. All aspects of your song should touch on emotional issues, but giving emotions that have no story behind them will leave your listeners with nothing to connect to.

As a learning tool, listen to several of your favourite songs, and create a chart like the one above for each song. It will allow you to easily compare the kinds of words used throughout the song, and get a better handle on how your lyrics should progress.

And you should be doing the same thing with your own songs. A chart like that will allow you to immediately compare the lyrical layering, and should identify any problems.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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