I wonder if I can be forgiven for not being aware of the quality of Kiefer Sutherland’s music. I’ve always known him as an excellent actor (24, Designated Survivor, etc.). But I wasn’t at all familiar with his music.
And it’s very good. He’s released two albums to date: “Down in a Hole” (2016) and “Reckless & Me” (2019). I’ve been listening especially to that more recent album, and it’s strong. It’s hit number 1 on the UK Country Charts list.
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Perhaps what I like most about the songs on this album is that they are a demonstration of the fact that when music is structurally strong, you don’t notice that structure. Like the frame of a beautiful building, you’re aware of the beauty of the bits you can hear, but pleasantly unaware of the all-important structure underneath, unless you choose to go looking.
I’ve really been enjoying “Something You Love” from the “Reckless & Me” album, and giving lots of thought to why it works so well.
The verse melody spends most of its time hitting notes in and around the tonic note, but mostly avoiding it. When melodies move around the tonic note, they create a pleasant sense of musical tension as listeners subconsciously want to hear that tonic resolution at some point, and if the melodies are good, they’re willing to wait.
So the only time we hear the tonic note in the verses is when it’s paired up with a non-tonic chord. We start to hear the tonic chord and tonic note finally pairing up in the pre-chorus sections, but it first appears as a quiet low tonic note (“Boy you’re on your own“)- not upstaging the chorus that’s to come.
In the chorus itself, the tonic note finally gets paired up with the tonic chord in a way that creates power and grabs attention. The melodic shapes all move strongly toward that tonic note, and that acts as a great energy release. This is a basic songwriting principle: avoid overuse of the tonic note in the verse, and use it more in the chorus.
“Something You Love” is in the key of B major, and a great demonstration of how the simplicity of the chords can properly support a melody, and if you balance major and minor chords properly you will find that the chords can act like the glue to pull melody and lyric together: chords come with a lot of mood attached.
Because the song is in a major key, and most of the chord choices are major, the few minor chords seem to hold much more power in controlling the mood of the lyric of the moment. So at the start of the pre-chorus, we get G#m, and that’s paired up with when we hear the real backstory: his friend is losing his job due to cutbacks, and he’s afraid that he’s so worried, he’s missing out on the good things in life.
It’s amazing how one simple chord can do that. And each time we hear the title line “Something you love…“, it gets paired up with a minor ii-chord, and it gives us the same effect: a strong sense of nostalgia tinged with a mixture of regret and hope.
When you read the lyrics to “Something You Love”, you really get the sense that they were lifted directly out of a real conversation – another vital songwriting principle. The words flow easily and naturally. The natural pulses of the words are paired up with the natural pulses of the music.
And you get a really vital fluctuating back and forth between lyrics that are simply meant to set the scene and describe what’s going on:
“I ran into an old friend
We shared some drinks and
Some old times gone by
Traded our war stories…
..and then words meant to pull at the heartstrings:
‘He said, “I’m wasting my life just paying my bills
Doin’ my time but getting no chills
A livin’ ain’t livin’, not without the thrill’.
That fluctuating between narrative-style and emotional word choices is also an important songwriting principle. Songs that are all-emotional all the time have a way of dulling its own effect. But when you start low, then move high (emotionally speaking), then find opportunities to dial it all back again, it draws listeners in: they want to hear the emotions return. Remember, songs, no matter what the topic, are all about feelings.
What Songwriters Can Learn
When I listen to music with my songwriter-instructor hat on, I’m always wondering what makes a particular song work: what makes me want to keep listening. With “Something You Love”, I get immediately impressed with how adhering to simple songwriting principles helps to create a song that’s hard to turn off when you start to listen.
That whole concept of “principles” in songwriting sounds so dry, but remember this: principles are meant to create songs of beauty. When you adhere to basic principles, and when they’re working for you, you become less and less aware of those principles the more you listen.
Good principles simply allow the various components of a song communicate with each other in really successful ways. “Something You Love” is a great demonstration of this important songwriting concept.
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