My lovely bride, Alana, bought me a high quality turntable as a gift recently. She knew I was collecting vinyl records just for the nostalgia. I was buying records I used to own before I sold them all to the local record store back in the early 80s. I thought at that time that CDs were the way to go. I amassed a collection of several hundred CDs over the next few decades. Eventually, I took the plunge and started consuming my music by downloading from iTunes. It was convenient and I could listen on my iPhone, iPad and desktop. I also subscribed to Rhapsody and streamed hundreds of songs and discovered untold numbers of new artists I wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. It’s nice to be able to sit there with the headphones on and spend an hour discovering new music. All this convenience came at a price. I wasn’t fully investing in the music.
As a teenager during the 70s, I became intimately familiar with the records I bought. I knew every song on every album I bought. I knew which song was coming next before the last song ended. I knew all the lyrics to all the songs on the album. Maybe it was because I listened to them over and over. Maybe it was because I read the liner notes and lyrics printed on the album sleeves. You don’t get lyrics printed on album sleeves when you buy your music from the internet. Trying to read the liner notes from a CD requires very strong reading glasses! Reading along to the lyrics from the album sleeve while the music was playing is one of life’s great pleasures. Sometimes you just can’t quite understand what the singer is saying and you need the cheat sheet! This truth became clear to me when I listened to a re-issue of Elephant by The White Stripes on vinyl.
It starts with the back of the album listing the songs. At the top it says, “Complete Recordings in Chronological Order*” The asterisk says, “*Not necessarily complete or in chronological order.” That’s a detail I would have missed if I bought this online. In the liner notes, Jack White said he deliberately refrained from using computers during Elephant’s writing, recording, or production. It got stranger from there.
I’ve always been a fan of The White Stripes. When I listen to music as background noise rather than delving into the details of the song, the singing becomes just another instrument of the song. I don’t really hear the lyrics separately from the music. The singing becomes one with the other instruments. Today, I sat and pulled out the LP sleeve and read the lyrics while listening to Elephant. I’m now convinced that Jack White is either insane or crazy intelligent!
The album won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album and for Best Rock Song for “Seven Nation Army.” Let’s look deeper into the lyrics of that song:
“I’m gonna fight ’em off. A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” – So far so good.
“They’re gonna rip it off
Taking their time right behind my back” – Okay, I’m slightly confused now.
“And I’m talking to myself at night
Because I can’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind a cigarette
And the message coming from my eyes
Says leave it alone” – I’m totally lost now!
It’s almost like,”I need to find a word that rhymes with forget – I know! Cigarette!”
I won’t repeat the entire song here, but you get the idea. Reading the lyrics can confuse the shit out of you if you try to isolate them from the song. Sometimes, the lyrics make no sense at all until you add them to the song where they make total sense. It just works. That’s the genius of the song.
The song was number six on Rolling Stone’s 2009 list of the 50 Best Songs of the Decade. In March 2005, Q Magazine placed “Seven Nation Army” at number 8 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. In September 2005, NME placed “Seven Nation Army” at number 5 in its list of the 50 Greatest Tracks Of The Decade. It was also called the 75th greatest hard rock song by VH1. In May 2008, Rolling Stone placed this song at number 21 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. It was also ranked #1 on Rhapsody’s list of the Top 100 Tracks of the Decade.
There’s an endless list of songs where the lyrics make no sense taken out of context. Sure, there are just as many songs where the lyrics take center stage. The Beatles wrote many meaningful songs that live on today as classics. They also wrote:
“Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come
Corporation teeshirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you been a naughty boy. You let your face grow long
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen
I am the walrus, goo goo goo joob”
It makes no sense, but it works.
I guess I could go on reading the lyrics and trying to interpret the song. Or, I could just enjoy the music as a whole. I may not be able to sing along, but I can play a mean air guitar!