American band Wilco has been around for a good long time now, since 1994. Their lineup has changed over the years, but has remained the same since 2004: Jeff Tweedy (singer), John Stirratt (bass), Glenn Kotche (drums), Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards), Nels Cline (guitar) and Pat Sansone (keyboards, guitar, etc.)
If you listen to much Wilco you’ll know that the lyrics are probably the feature that pulls people in and makes them fans. But there’s so much more. Wilco’s instrumentations tend to be pleasantly transparent, ethereal when they need to be, but also energetic and driven when necessary (“I’m a Wheel“).
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If you’re a fan of music that’s thought-provoking and nostalgic, you’ll love “Impossible Germany” (Jeff Tweedy Glenn Kotche), from their 2007 album “Sky Blue Sky”:
There’s so much to say about this gorgeous tune, so let’s look at just a few of the things that make this song work so well.
Here’s the basic design of the song. You’ll notice that the song’s intro is used as a structural element throughout the song, so you’ll hear it return at the end of the chorus, again before the long guitar solo that finishes the song, and then again as a final statement:
The Power of a Great Introduction
The opening riff is a little duet for guitars, two bars long, that repeats several times before the verse begins at the 20-second mark. It’s clever because it makes use of two kinds of intervals: the bare, hollow sounds of the 4ths and 5ths, contrasted with the sweeter sounds of the thirds:
What makes these intro intervals so significant is that they describe the two overarching moods we pick up from this song when you listen from start to finish: agitated and unsettled: an instrumentation that features a barren, hollow transparent nature, intermingled with nostalgia: a warm, emotional feel in the chord choices and vocal line.
That means the intro demonstrates one of the most important principles in good songwriting: that all song components work together — nothing happens in a vacuum. If you want your audience to feel a certain something from the vocal line and lyric, you’ve got to find ways to incorporate those emotions into other aspects of the song.
You can read the lyrics here. You definitely get the feeling that there’s a notion of unrequited love, or a love that evolves to something more supportive but platonic.
For those of you wanting to work on lyrics that are less literal, more imaginative and metaphoric, “Impossible Germany” is a great model. You find yourself wondering what each specific line could mean, but at the same time you’re not particularly bothered if the meaning of one particular line is elusive: it gives you something to think about, while still allowing you to enjoy the song.
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You can spend a long time parsing the words and phrases, and still not be sure you’ve got it right. But to me, the fullest meaning comes from the end of the lyric, which, if you read it simply as prose, reveals a clearer picture:
But this is what love is for – to be out of place, gorgeous and alone, face to face; with no larger problems that need to be erased
Nothing more important than to know someone’s listening
Now I know you’ll be listening
And then all that remains is to figure out how and why Germany and Japan appear in the lyric. Some figure that it’s a reference to the roles these two countries play internationally: allies, but always struggling to communicate. Perhaps. But regardless, it causes us to think and to try different interpretations. Maybe there’s another meaning that’s not so obvious.
The melodies of “Impossible Germany” make use of a small tone set, repeated over and over, and are presented to us in two short phrases: one that moves primarily upward (“Impossible Germany…”), followed by a mainly downward-moving one: (“unlikely Japan…”).
The thing you’ll notice about these phrases is that they’re short. In general, short musical phrases result in music that sounds a bit angst-ridden and unsettled.
I particularly like how the phrases lengthen toward the end of the chorus, at the words “This is important/ But I know you’re not listening…”. It’s as if the realization that “you’re not listening” is something he’s coming to terms with as the relationship he’s describing is morphing into something more platonic. But that’s my interpretation, and the lovely thing about songs like this is that true meaning can be elusive. All interpretations take time, and can be wrong but still work.
There’s nothing ambiguous about the chord choices here. All the chords come from the key of G major, but the verses start on the ii-chord (Am) before making G feel like home.
Am – C – Gmaj7 – Em – Am | (repeat) ||
C – Am – C – Am – G – Em – Am – C – Am – C
There are some nice touches that add to the emotion of the song. Most of the time, for example, when the IV-chord happens, we get the note F# added in — an augmented 4th note which continues through to the G chord, becoming the major 7th in that chord. When added to C, it’s got an interesting “sour” (angst) flavour that modifies to something sweeter (nostalgic) when added to C: those two emotions contrasted once again.
It’s not that uncommon for a song’s intro to keep coming back throughout a song. It’s a great way to add some symmetry to the formal design: when listeners hear things repeating it allows them the feeling that they “get” the song.
So the choice to bring this attractive feature of the song back again several times strengthens the song’s structure.
The long guitar solo — it comprises about half the entire length of the song — is captivating. It’s played over the chord progression: G – Em – Am. At times it’s simply a free solo, but starting at 4’08” it plays over a structured guitar riff made up of — again — short melodic phrases in the backing instrumentation.
It’s also a great reminder that instrumentals need to be well played. On the days that you’re not feeling that your songwriting is happening, those are great days to work on improving your own instrumental abilities. It pays off!
It’s great that a song that makes musical choices that might be considered simple and clear can still sound so imaginative and fresh. What makes this song work are:
- imaginative lyrics that use words you’d hear in a casual conversation;
- a simple melody that’s easy to sing and easy to remember, phrased to emphasize the emotion of the moment;
- chord choices that lock into the tonic (G) and keeps pulling the listener back to that chord with a bit of harmonic interest (the augmented 4th in the IV-chord: F#)
- deciding to add a long guitar solo to the end, one that’s well-conceived and well-played.
If you’re not familiar with Wilco or their music, check out their homepage, WilcoMusic.
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