my goal is to publish these posts weekly every thursday, but i made the mistake of starting this series when my life is in chaos. i just moved to LA and i’m still in the process of finding somewhere to live, and i’m working…so things are hectic to say the least. once i’m settled, this will be something you can expect every thursday. this takes a lot more work than i thought it would, but it is so so satisfying…i can’t wait to be doing it regularly.
also, i just want to note again that the production of these songs aren’t perfect — in fact, that’s kind of the point. the stems have been completely lost, so there’s no way to really mix or master them into something better. writing about them is my way of trying to do them justice.
there are a few ways to write a song, but the method i’m most familiar with starts with finding a series of progressions i like on a guitar or piano. the last song i wrote about wasn’t written in this way — it was found and developed almost exclusively through toying around with sampling and software instruments. so, i wanted to make sure the next song i wrote about was made in the more traditional way and mostly featuring acoustic instruments. i’ve always really liked this song too, so i’m excited to talk about where it came from, how it was made and what it means.
it’s called “withdrawal”, and while presumably being a song about the aftermath of drug addiction, it’s foremost a song about distancing yourself from a toxic relationship. this is clearly not the first time love has been metaphorized as a drug addiction, but i do think the particular language is unique, and the comparison is never explicitly beaten obvious (unlike, i don’t know, something like “love is like oxygen”).
there’s not a lot of set-up for this song: it was 2010, i was in a bad relationship in college and we decided to stop speaking to each other by the time summer started. chicago was bumming me out; i decided to come home to florida for a few months. i had a few friends in town who had dropped out of school and started selling coke. i had spent the previous winter break blowing more blow than i was used to with some family, and i wasn’t in a good place already, so i spent that summer completely in a snowstorm.
by the end of the summer, i felt like i was close to a heart attack a hundred times. anyone who has done drugs a lot will know this feeling, but it was the first time i had the realization i needed to rebuild my body. that includes sleeping off the bad feelings, working out vigorously, eating saltless dinners, etc.
of course, when you’re an actual addict, these realizations aren’t epiphanies — they are just part of the pattern, whereafter you get tired and then sad and then go back to drugs again. even though this was the first time i had this realization with drugs, it wasn’t the first time i had it with girls (i’m the actual worst when it comes to cutting girls off who are horrible for me; i never seem to let them go). so, in this song, i’m using my experience with girls to try and temper the overwhelming optimism that comes with getting over your first drug addiction. you think you are over it. you think you’ve got the solution. you’re an idiot.
as i said, this song was something i wrote on the guitar, which means initially i was more interested in the relationship between the chords than i was about specific sounds or melodies. if you listen to the verse, the actual progression lasts quite a few measures. most passages in pop songs only switch between two or three chords, because we aren’t being asked to listen to that compositional relationship — there are other elements, such as a cool sample or an interesting melody or a subversive instrument, that are being showcased and simply need a foundation to be brought to life. nonetheless, that foundation can be a fascinating place to spend your songwriting energy, because there’s so much movement that can be expressed there.
for instance, “freak of the week” and “withdrawal” are both in the same key, but that’s not obvious in any way. “freak of the week” only changes between two major chords the entire song, because the progression is simply serving the other surface elements. but with “withdrawal”, the verse is 6 chords over either 6 or 8 measures; the chorus changes 4 chords over 2 measures; the outro envoi is 5 chords over 4 measures that seek to composite features from the progression of both the verse and chorus into a passage of a different tempo, etc.
meanwhile, the logic of the progression is being used to facilitate the understanding of the song’s lyrical content. the verse starts in a minor chord, and then immediately uses the salient major chord of the scale — this is a way of demonstrating optimism, moving from a sad place to the highest place. but then we immediately drop not only to a minor chord, but the most unused minor chord in the scale, the iii chord. that again drops to the ii minor chord, which juxtaposes, and even undermines, how the initial first two chords moved in an optimistic way. but from here we move to the V major chord, a much deeper upper move on the scale from those two first chords. this signals an overcoming, but from here we move downwards to the IV chord, which is major, but still downwards. we linger on this chord because it represents what the song itself is about: a hopeful (because it’s major) but unconvincing (because it arrives after moments that are undermining and degrading) resolution.
that might seem like a lot of bullshit. maybe it is. but i believe it’s a real way, unconsciously or not, that songwriters go about their craft. the progression used in a song isn’t always about directionality of course; sometimes it’s about using standards in subversive ways, sometimes it’s about geometry (i.e. the transpositions of chord shapes), etc. but at any rate, the character of a song is in many ways decided by what chords are used and how they are used; it’s just a fact that most of the songs we listen to don’t spend a lot of energy developing these relationships, and instead opt for simple progressions.
there’s only one other comment i want to make about the song’s progression: one reason for the tempo slowing down in the outro is that it’s supposed to represent the tapering off of energy that happens after you come out of that epiphany moment when quitting something. if you’re relying on the burst of energy you get when you finally quit a drug or someone you’ve loved, you’re probably going to relapse when that energy dies off — the lyrics i think complement this position as well.
in terms of orchestration, i tried to mostly use acoustic instruments because i wanted a spooky campfire feel to the song. the only things that aren’t acoustic are the organ and the bass guitar, but the mandolin, the xylophone, the acoustic guitar, the tambourine, the egg, snare and bass drum — all that was recorded with a microphone (for what it’s worth, i always play all my own instruments). i like how the instruments come together at times and then move away from each other. notice how on the 2nd chord of the verse, the mandolin, guitar and xylophone come together to form a melody, and then they all split off again on the third chord back to their respective roles.
the mandolin and the egg operate on a similar high frequency, which lends a background kind of anxiety to the verse since the egg is working double-time. that anxiety comes to the surface in the chorus, when the snare drum more prominently comes into focus. another cool percussive note is that during the outro, there is a cymbal in the background that gets louder and louder throughout the passage, until the end where it is being smashed. this is another expression of anxiety.
i could keep writing about this song all day, but i think the main point i’m trying to get across is that the chords you use and the orchestration you devise all can tell a story, even if it’s difficult to put into words what that story is.
Online TV, why you freezing?
I won’t ask from where you buffer.
i started writing the lyrics to this song because as i was recovering from my last bender, my mind drifted as my online TV stream cut off. i was too paralyzed to get up and try to fix it — so here i am, pleading to the tv that it start working.
what might be lost here is that i worked with this idea because it was a funny metaphor for why i had to cut off the relationship with the girl i talked about earlier. in brief, she had another boyfriend back home that i didn’t know about. but the tv, the girl, even the drugs…they all work in the same way: whatever they are giving me, i don’t know where it’s coming from. and i’m surrendering control.
I just want the things I want.
I’m happy every day now.
so much of sobriety is about surrender, and unpacking your complexities. “i just want the things i want” is a way of demystifying myself. “i’m happy every day now” is a confirmation of that strategy of demystification. but the harrowing feel of the song belies the optimism of these sentiments.
My quiet, sober gypsy moths —
I’ll watch what these pests eat out.
a friend’s dad was explaining to me that one of his properties was losing value because the forest behind it was being devastated by gypsy moths – it was something he knew could happen, but the effects and spread of gypsy moths are not very well understood, so it wasn’t predictable.
i thought that would be a nice metaphor for sobriety. my understanding is that a lot of creative people, myself included, are afraid how their creative life will turn out once they get sober (“i’ll watch what these pests eat out”). creatively, is sobriety a way of mistaking the forest for the trees?
Picking at my nose, still stuffy,
But it’s getting better.
when you snort a lot of drugs, your nose gets stuffy all the time. but even once you get clean, it takes a lot of time for your nose to get better. so this is an image that represents the ways in which your drug abuse lingers, even after the physical addiction has ended.
Schizo-analyze just what I like,
So tired of my patience, and
i was reading anti-oedipus when i was writing this song; here is the wikipedia link to schizo-analysis. the book is basically nonsense, but i did feel a connection to the idea that being addicted to drugs is like trying to understand yourself through complexification as opposed to reduction. you’re schizophrenic in the sense that your values and truths are different between your sober and fucked up selves – you are a clear contradiction.
“so tired of my patience” is an expression of exploring that contradiction, while also being a very real-to-life expression about how sobriety makes me feel.
Kissing pillows that look like you
By my imagination
but again, this portrait of a drug withdrawal and recovery is an extended metaphor for a break up. the purpose of this line is to establish this connection before the chorus, as all the chorus is is a simple demonstration of this connection.
it’s also an honest and pathetic line – maybe you’ve never done it, but sometimes you want someone so bad you’ll kiss your pillow and pretend it’s them. the fact it’s a childish behavior returns a characterization to drug use itself.
I don’t want you now.
I don’t want you now.
I won’t haunt you now.
the first two repetitions of “i don’t want you now” suggests a personification of drugs. but when we get to “i won’t haunt you now”, the personification seems skewed – it becomes apparent this is actually about a person, and letting that person go.
People only talk of people.
I have lost the interest.
we come back to “people”, in order to stress the drug-girl connection again. but also this was just a real observation i was having in my life, that the conversations in my life were dwindling from the important topics to mindless social discussions. drugs can activate you when the other areas of your life aren’t. but “i have lost the interest” in this way of life.
3 good sets of 15 reps
And steady health will keep you equal.
fitness is an important part of staying clean for me. it’s also a solitudinous act for me; focusing on the physical life is a strategy to isolate yourself from a toxic social life.
I’m jogging next to road kill cats
As if life wasn’t lethal.
but there’s also the awareness that this energy will taper off, and that your efforts are pointless. during the time i was writing this song, i went for a run one day and saw a dead cat on the road that had been run over. cats are domestic animals – they are one of us. we all die – what’s the point?
But do something for long enough
And it starts to feel legal.
when you become complacent with abuse and it becomes part of your life, you can completely forget how it’s illegal and uncommon. you can forget that your soul doesn’t have to be so damaged.
Now my tedium smiles while it’s yawning,
Pawing from a distance.
i can feel the energy tapering off – even boredom is bored of itself. the cat from before, here a symbol of futility, is reaching at me, tempting to close the “distance”, seducing me to give up.
And coke dealers rap in my ear,
But I don’t want to listen.
this is a figurative image that also happened in real life. on the last bender i went on before writing this song, we invited some coke dealers to come over to our studio. they wanted to record and started rapping for us. that’s when i started coming down, and i just remember thinking how miserable they were at rapping, and how miserable i was for listening.
of course, the figurative part of this image is that i’m being coaxed into using again, even though “i don’t want to listen” to temptation.
Clinquant, the breeze —
so we have finally slowed down, we have tapered off and have given up our defenses. the metaphor is mostly stripped — we are firmly in the romantic image that this song has earlier tried to resist. we’ve been seduced.
in other words, this passage is basically describing a romantic fantasy i’m having about the girl i’m breaking up with. i just can’t resist.
palmettos are little palms that are natural to florida, my home; to be under them is to basically be laying on the ground, to have surrendered. so in my fantasy, i’ve taken her to my home, we are laying on the ground under palms, there is a breeze, the scene is glittering with gold and silver, etc.
You know, I’m not what I look like,
But I am what I seem.
this is an expression of romantic abandon by way of a phenomenological perspective. “i’m not what i look like” means to say that there’s more to me than what meets your judgement. but at the same time, “i am what i seem” — that is, all there is are appearances. in that way, i can be whatever you want me to be.
this also harkens back to the first line of the song, where there’s a surrendering of the desire to know where things come from, what hides behind the surface (“i won’t ask from where you buffer”). it doesn’t matter what i am to you, so long as i am with you.
I’d kiss you forever
With benzo ease.
You know, I’m not what I look like.
the structure of this song also represents a cocaine bender – you go fast and keep going until you come down. to cope with the come down, you can take a benzo like xanax, which slows down your anxiety. i used to do that often. the loose, sloppy feel of this ending represents that benzo effect.
the line “benzo ease” is supposed to signal this structural representation, while keeping continuity with the romantic abandonment theme that is being developed (“i’d kiss you forever”).
Clinquant, the breeze —
You know, I’m not what I look like,
Though I am what I seem.
repeating this stanza is another way of being loose and almost mindless. form and function again.
Autumnal calm you’d breathe
With benzo ease.
You know I’m not what I look like
the only change here is the “i’d kiss you forever” with “autumnal calm you’d breathe”. autumn as a season signals the beginning of the end. but it’s beautiful, and quiet. and nearly dead. if i look alive, well then…you know i’m not what i look like.
hope you enjoyed! any feedback is appreciated. if you enjoyed this, please spread the word — i’d be so grateful if you did. thanks!