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What Came First, The Music Or The Misery: 11 Songs That Tell A Story Better Than Most Movies

By TK & Ian Mead Moore | Lists | September 20, 2013 |

By TK & Ian Mead Moore | Lists | September 20, 2013 |

We love movies. We really do. But we also love music, in some cases more than we’ll ever love movies. Music is with us all the time, in the car, as we walk down the street, as we lie in bed, as we sleep. It’s the medium that follows us as we travel through our lives. It can be used to soothe us, anger us, make us happy, make us sad. Music is with us all the time, whether we’re whistling idly in the hallways or rocking out in the car. And sometimes, music does more than just throw instruments and lyrics at you. Sometimes it can be poetry about love and hate and sex and violence. Sometimes it tells a story.

We don’t mean a simple story. We mean a real story, a story rife with complexities, with loves and hates and good people and bad people, with beginnings and endings, be they happy or otherwise. Some artists have a gift for telling a story through a song, and when it’s done right, it’s something amazing. People have been using music to tell stories for centuries, and there’s something truly amazing about the ability to spin a tale using just a few minutes of rhythm and melody that truly blows us away. And so, here are Eleven Songs That Tell A Story Better Than Most Movies:

Cat Stevens, “Father And Son”

“If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them you know not me/Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away/I know I have to go”

This song has been crushing my soul since I was ten years old. I was introduced to a slew of classics by my father, a man whose love for music rivals my own. And given that we’ve had our own complicated, at times contentious relationship, “Father and Son” has always been a tearjerker for me, and now that I have my own son, it basically reduces me to goo every time. A song about, well, a father and son, it’s split into two parts, with Stevens singing the part of each of them with note-perfection. It’s a perfect story about the love and frustration of fathers and the bitterness and resentment and rebellion of sons, and it plays out with a heartrending sense of inevitability, as if we knew that final line was coming, even though we dreaded it the whole time. — TK

Ludo, “Lake Ponchartrain”

“That’s how it happened/why would I lie/There were no bodies/I’ve got none to hide/I’m just a boy, lost his friends in the rain/any more questions just go and ask Lake Ponchartrain”

Thinking about this list, the little STL pop-rock band-that-could was one of the first that sprang to mind, primarily due to their 2005 magnum opus “Broken Bride”. Unfortunately, a five part mini rock opera about a man going back in time and battling pterodactyls and zombies to find his wife doesn’t really fit within the defined parameters. Instead, we get “Lake Ponchartrain”, off their second album “I Love You, You’re Awful”. A breakneck race through a REALLY fucking bad road trip, punctuated by stabs of ska guitar and Ludo’s signature character-voice backing vocals (in this case, the ghastly denizens of a horror-movie Louisiana lake) puts us off suspicious crawfish for a while. Polished musicianship aside, the best flourishes of this terror-song are in tiny, mundane details tossed in at random, because of course they were driving a Toyota Camry. — Ian Moore

Murder By Death, “Brother”

“So brother, raise another pint/Rev up the engine and drive off in the night/See you somewhere some place some time/I know there’s better brother’s but you’re the only one that’s mine”

Murder By Death is a band that excels in storytelling, and “Brother” is one of their finest works. A sweeping epic about family ties and all the forces that bind them while also threatening to tear them asunder, it tells the tale of a pair of brothers, their dying mother, and the lawless antics of one that endangers them all. It’s a brilliant song, aided by the rousing vocals by Adam Turla as well as vibrant, jaunty bit of cello by multi-instrumentalist Sarah Balliet. And when the drums start to pound as the bondsman comes looking for the errant brother, there’s a genuine sense of raw bitterness feathered with true familial loyalty. — TK

Sufjan Stevens, “Casmir Pulaski Day”

“Oh the glory when he took our place/but he took my shoulders/and he shook my face/and he takes and he takes and he takes”

If you don’t already know this song and are feeling a little melancholic, please, save it for later. Off one of the finest albums of the last decade “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”, “Casmir Pulaski Day” is a Force 5 Weeper. Stevens’ fans know what I’m talking about. The utter heartbreak of this song is matched only by the spare beauty of the musical arrangement, with Sufjan gently whispering us through the ripples of a teenage girl’s losing fight with cancer through the eyes of her Doubting-Thomas boyfriend, accompanied most of the time only by solo strings or a keening soprano harmony. Goes well with: cranberry vodkas, ice cream. — Ian Moore

Atmosphere, “Dreamer”

“She gotta live right and do right by self/She do for self she don’t want your help/Afraid of being alone/But fear ain’t enough to knock her off of that stone/Gonna make that home her home/with or without a man that she can call her own”

There have been innumerable stories about young women and their trials and tribulations, but Atmosphere’s “Dreamers” always sticks to me both because of the gripping realness of its lyrics, but also of the combined sense of hopefulness and bitterness that pervades the song. Backed by a bouncing instrumental track, it rolls easily along with frontman Slug’s intense lyrics. It’s a song about the drudgery of finding work, about love and relationships and motherhood, all wrapped up in a seemingly-simple tale of one woman’s journey. But there’s so much depth and complexity in there that it’s almost painful sometimes. — TK

Nickel Creek, “The Lighthouse’s Tale”

“She had to leave us/My keeper he prayed for her safe return/but when the night came/the weather to a raging storm had turned/He watched her ship fight/but in vain against the wild and terrible waves/In me so helpless/as dashed against the rocks she met her end”

Sorrows make the best story songs, don’t argue, just listen. A fairly standard shipwreck story, Nickel Creek turns the concept 90 degrees toward the inanimate object by imploring you to think of the poor, lonely buildings left behind when their selfish keepers commit Irish Seppuku. In this case, getting ginned up and running off the edge of the lighthouse to splatter on the same rocks that claimed your beloved makes for a pretty damn good mandolin song. Nickel Creek could skew rather twee in their fiercely traditional first album (primarily instrumentals with the few lyrics dominated by folksy tales such as this) but the abruptly tragic twist at the end of “The Lighthouse’s Tale” accompanied by the musical climax elevates this track above simple instrumental virtuosity. — Ian Moore

Jeff Buckley, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”

“Lonely is the room, the bed is made, the open window lets the rain in/Burning in the corner is the only one who dreams he had you with him/My body turns and yearns for a sleep that won’t ever come “

Everything about this song - everything - has the ability to make me f*cking weep like a child. Even the title is a gut punch, especially once you’ve had a chance to listen to the lyrics. It’s a howling storm of mournfulness and regret, of love lost and of emotional damage. Jeff Buckley’s gift wasn’t just that he had an impossibly great voice, but also that he was able to give such emotional power to that voice that you felt like you were living every moment of loss. It’s a song about mistakes and bad choices and longing, and when he cracks while singing each “it’s never over,” it breaks my heart every single time. — TK

Dawes, “A Little Bit Of Everything”

“I think that love is so much easier than you realize/if you can give yourself to someone/then you should”

If you’re not obsessed with this band yet then get your ass to Eye-Tunes™ and download their debut “North Hills”. Better yet, get it on vinyl. It sounds better and more pretentious that way. One of the most lyrically rich bands working today, Dawes (led by principal songwriter and lyricist Taylor Goldsmith) sounds like the logical descendant of Americana bands like Uncle Tupelo and Old 97s, and share “retro” sonic similarities with their peers Fleet Foxes and Mumford&Sons. But a second listen reveals a poetically modern relevancy to Goldsmith’s commentary on trying to keep his head above the wash of sun drenched LA ennui. The closer to Dawes’ second effort “Nothing Is Wrong” Is a 3 act triptych of how we deal with the slow collection of everyday complications. Are they panacea or grit in the gears, simple pleasures or a succession of backbreaking straws? All those things, the last verse would say. — Ian Moore

Faith No More, “RV”

“I think it’s time I had a talk with my kids/I’ll just tell ‘em what my daddy told me/You ain’t never gonna amount to nothin’”

Mike Patton, in all of his incarnations, but particularly with his now-defunct band Faith No More, was one of the kings of storytelling. Every song was him stepping into the role of someone new and fascinating, each one told a brand new awful and amazing tale. Whether it was vampire or baby or drug addict, he is always riveting to listen to. “RV” is a masterpiece, a rambling, goofy-sounding track accompanied by some plunking piano and twanging guitars that is initially laughed at. But scratch the surface, gentle listener, and you’ll find a dark and depressing tale of a man living a life of bitterness and misery, who hates a world that he doesn’t understand, that is changing beyond his control, a world that he despises because he has no place in it. So he lashes out at everything around him, all from the lazy confines of his living room, while contemplating his own self-loathing. — TK

Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant”

“I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ‘cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug”

Quick, name the song that first springs to your mind when you think of the twilight of the 1960s youth cultural zeitgeist. “Woodstock”, maybe? Or perhaps Hendrix’s dive-bombing take on “The Star Spangled Banner”? Maybe those singing nuns (hey, do your thing man, whatever that is)? For baby boomers, though, you probably wouldn’t get far down a list of generation-defining story songs before you hit Woody’s Kid and his 20 minute rambler. “Alice’s Restaurant” is the definition of a slow burn, an inside joke among those who made it through to the end. What starts as a shuffling nowhere song about small town bureaucracy and diffident counterculturist platitudes ends with an unequivocal indictment of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War draft. Turning a story around from littering to unwilling cannon fodder in a war history has generally consigned to the “Oops” bin…Arlo, you take all the time you need. We’ll listen. — Ian Moore

Living Colour, “Open Letter (To A Landlord)”

“There used to be when kids could play/Without the scourge of drug’s decay/Now our kids are living dead/They crack and blow their lives away”

Of the many Living Colour songs that I absolutely adore, this one is in the top three. A song that alternates between soulful, sorrowful lament and blistering, rocking condemnation, it’s a harrowing tale about the troubles of inner cities and the forces conspiring against its denizens. Living Colour was one of the bands that opened my eyes and literally changed the way I looked at music, and both this album (“Vivid”) and this song were big parts of that. It talks about not just the misery, but also the love and happiness and hope, and everything in-between. “Open Letter” is both scathing criticism and loving ode, a precarious balance that they absolutely deliver on. — TK