Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deconstructing "One More Cloud"

Now here's a fine thing. The song I chose as my #1 pick for Round 2 was eliminated in the same round. This was "One More Cloud" by Brian Gray:


In SpinTunes 1, I gave people the advice not to put too much weight on one judge's opinion, but to pay attention to consensus. Here's the consensus for "One More Cloud":
Dr. Lindyke - 17
Kevin Savino-Riker - 8
Glen Phillips - 7
Jeff MacDougall - 2
Zack Scott - 3
Len Peralta - 2
Now there's a spread, and I'm clearly in the minority. Is it possible that I'm just completely wrong, or did I see something that all those other people missed?  I'm prepared to make a case that I did indeed get it right.

That's not to say that everyone else is terribly wrong. But their criteria are not mine. They're looking at the mix, the instrumentation, the singing, the production, etc., whereas I don't give a damn about any of that. I'm looking at the composition and the lyrics. I think my perspective is different enough that I can make a clear case for my decision. There's quite a bit less for me to write regarding "One More Cloud" than there was regarding "Stars over Avalon," as Brian Gray has already written a detailed biography of his song.

Now, here's an interesting thing... Brian asked the judges in advance if he was allowed to use 3am as source material (it appeared on non-US charts, and the answer was yes), and whether he was allowed take the song in a different direction than the original artists would have. In this request he explained the following:
1) The song is about Rob Thomas' mother's erratic behavior during and after a fight with cancer. I have personally gone through something very similar, and identify with the song on a personal level. However, the song I wish to write now would never be written by the original artist because his mother survived her fight. Is it acceptable for a "sequel" to be about subject matter that the original artist would not have had reason to write about?
So it wasn't necessary for me to reference Brian's song bio until after I had analyzed the song. When I did read the bio, what surprised me was how many of the things that I detected in "One More Cloud" were consciously placed there.

Let's start with a glance at the original Matchbox Twenty song.  It was written about Rob Thomas' mother having been diagnosed with cancer when Rob was in his early teens. Expecting her life to end, she decided to party her life away. The title, "3 am", refers to the time of day that the bars would close and she would come home, unfulfilled, and lonely. The tone of the song is angry, frustrated... reflecting Thomas' feelings of abandonment. To me it sounds a little self-indulgent, but we have to remember it's written from the point of view of a neglected teen.

Now, there's nothing in the rules that says you have to continue the song in the same direction that the original band would have had they written a sequel. That would have been a stupid rule anyway. So while Rob Thomas' mother survived her bout with cancer, Brian Gray's did not. Brian's song is about a moment in time. Specifically, his mother has died and he's releasing her ashes from a bridge. They're swept away by the wind and beaten down by the falling rain. There is a fundamental difference, then, in the tone taken by these two songs. The original is that of a petulant teen; the sequel is of the man, now grown into understanding, who is laying his mother to rest with genuine love and remorse. This difference in emotional tone is reflected in Brian's music, and I'd argue that it's not a single beat per minute too fast or slow.

The tune begins as a low contemplative bit, pitched almost in speaking tones:
I don't seem to sleep a lot now when it's raining
I don't need to watch my step, I know this road
The winter snaps at my skin. I guess that I should care, or something
But I don't seem to notice lately when it's cold
This rises to cry of anguish which segues to a truly beautiful melodic crescendo at the act of letting go, which is both an emotional release as well as a physical release of his mother's ashes:
Breath embraces the mist, becomes it, hides away in the shadows
There's nothing left but letting go
At this point we really don't know yet what's going on, but we now transition into the chorus, with it's sweeping melody which, to me, rivals any of the best songs ever written:
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
We don't have enough information yet to understand these words, but damn, that tune is sweet. The melody sets an emotional baseline for understanding in the reprise. The next verse is pure tugging at heartstrings:
She'd have wanted to be somewhere else that's warmer
She always liked herself a sunny, tropic shore
Who knows? Maybe that's where she'll be carried, maybe not
But this is really not about her anymore
Every word that was said or wasn't, every torturous regret
All I can do is let them go
Through this verse we realize what's going on. This is a death, and the verse communicates all of the reminiscence that accompany such. The final two lines are an acknowledgment of attitudes held in the original song, and exposition that this is a release, not just of physical remains, but of all those unresolved issues that require closure. Once more we hear the chorus, and now we can interpret it.
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
I was struck by several things here. The first was the realization that the "cloud" is actually that of his mother's ashes, and has nothing to do with the rain. Secondly, that these ashes, even as they dissipate into the air and water, are referred to as "she". He's not just disposing of her remains; he holds in his hands, among those ashes, all that he has retained of her, and regards them with respect and reverence. The description of his mother as she "dances away" on the wind is simply beautiful and communicates to me that she is being freed. Amid the sorrow we're reminded that this is also a joyous event.

Two things remind us of the original song here. The more obvious is the re-use of "it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely," though her it's used to completely different effect. In the original I read it as an expression of her fear of dying, and I'll talk about what it means here in a bit. But to me the more effective reference is that the raindrops falling reminds us of Rob Thomas' lyric, "Baby, But I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes / And the rain's gonna wash away what I believe in." When I made that connection it chilled me to the bone, and I was delighted upon reading Brian's song bio that it was deliberate. To me, this makes this sequel completely unique among all the entries we received... it actually makes the original song better than it was before.  I will never again hear "3 AM"  without interpreting the mother's words as a prophetic foreshadowing of that predatory rain.

We're treated now to an ethereal guitar solo followed by the bridge,
A life in ashes and a raincoat, an immutable final loss
The simple act of letting go
This is descriptive of the song itself, in which we're also presented with this reminder from the original song: "And she hands me a raincoat / She's always worried about things like that." It's simply as it appears: a reminder of what is lost and acceptance of its permanence. This is not a song that has a narrative. Rather, it's a single, precise moment in time as the clock chimes have just finished tolling 3am. It is the moment of closure.

We close with a reprise of the chorus.
And then there's one more cloud
Like a final breath into the wind, she dances away
And the tolling echoes loudly
And the raindrops eat away, bite by bite 'til nothing remains
And as the chiming fades it's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
Once again I'm reminded of that predatory rain. The ashes aren't simply washed away, they're eaten. Not just one thing is happening here, but as is true in real life, there are multiple levels of meaning. Loss is both natural and sorrowful; beautiful and cruel. We as humans do not experience true loneliness until we've experienced a loss like this. The statement, "I must be lonely", is a wondering realization of an emotion that we only thought we'd known in the past. It's also a declaration of what must be.

Read Brian Gray's song bio to learn more background, and for an explanation of the technical aspects of his musical choice and influences. What's written above is simply what I got from the song, and that's not necessarily what was intended. Every time I listened, I got more out of it. There are things that I didn't get (and had no way of knowing), such as the setting on a bridge over the river, or the distinction between the "tolling" and "chiming" of the bells of St. Mary's. Overall, though, I was seriously impressed by the amount of information compressed into this song, and its sheer emotional impact. Neither I nor my wife can hear it without tearing up.

Obviously, the song didn't have the same effect on the other judges. Perhaps this is because I'm older and have suffered the same personal loss as Brian. Perhaps it's because I'm looking for things that they are not. Because I started this blog post stating that I'm prepared to argue that I saw something here the other judges didn't, I'm going to do a big no-no and publish all of the other reviews of this song side-by-side:
Len Peralta:
Something seems off about this song. Maybe it’s because the guitar sounds slightly flat behind the verses. I’m not feeling this one. Also, knowing that it’s derived from Matchbox 20 makes me dislike it even more. (I’m not a big Matchbox 20 fan, unfortunately.)
Zack Scott:
Simply put, I didn't really enjoy this song at all. I also thought the production was not very good. I don't mean any offense by this, because I thought Brian's song last week was fairly good.
Jeff MacDougall:
Challenge: B – Technically meets the challenge but didn’t know what the original tune was by just listening to the song.
Lyrics: B - Fine. Bordering on cliché though.
Structure: A – Rock structure.
Melody: B – Not bad but didn’t stick for me.
This one just sort of laid there for me. Didn’t know what the original song was without reading the liner notes. Style and melody left me cold.
Glen Phillips:
This mix is really awful. Vocals are way too up front. I hate the drum sound. What’s up with the big 80’s vibe for a 90’s staple? The challenge is met well. Why the dinosaur feet pace for this? The karaoke mix is painful. I like the guitar bend hook.
Kevin Savino-Riker:
A serious song from a funnyman? A surprising departure from last time, you’ve got a plaintive and heartbroken followup to a song that never would’ve suggested this kind of conclusion to me.... but now that you’ve pointed it out, I see all the pieces are there. Your lyrics made a strong thematic attachment to the original but you used your music to coax it into this new emotional space of burying a lost loved one. I had to listen a few times to really notice it, but this is a very good answer to the challenge.
 With the exception of Kevin (who, as our arguably most rounded judge, ranked it fairly highly, as did Glen), I don't see much consideration of the song itself. Sometimes the crowd just misses it. That's a shame, because we've just eliminated what I consider to be one of the brightest talents in this field of competitors.

Nevertheless, I'm not saying that these folks are wrong. There must be some reason for their agreement, and they are looking for other things. This is how judging works. In this competition we are looking for the "Iron Chef of Songwriters". That's why we have a number of judges from different backgrounds, each looking at different criteria. Just as it's not enough to have only great production values (because such things don't count for much with judges like me), it's not enough to have only a great song, as that clearly matters little to some of the other judges who are looking at things other than lyrical or melodic content, such as performance, instrumentation, and the technical mix . You've got to bring everything to the table at the same time to advance to the later rounds.

Despite his being eliminated this round, I congratulate Brian Gray, who wrote for this challenge an amazing and truly touching piece of art.

(P.S. Glen's criticism notwithstanding, I love the drums)

6 comments:

Heather said...

Nice deconstruction, as usual! And it really is fascinating to see all the rankings for one song side by side. Kind of makes me want to do that with all of the songs. :-)

Bram Tant said...

Good analysis of this song. Made me appreciate it a lot more.

Brian Gray said...

Thanks for the writeup. Some things that happen to be running through my head at the moment:

1) I was a bit nervous about the heavily reverb'd drums myself. Their purpose was to establish a physical setting. To me a deserted river, between banks of trees, late at night would stand out as a place where sound carries and echoes...where every footstep is something about which I'd be self-conscious, like I'd be waking people up. So I may have overdone the tom levels somewhat by imagining how loud everything would have seemed.
2) The concept of wet, syncopated drums with no backbeat as well as the AABA line pattern in the verse was inspired by Matchbox Twenty's "Bed of Lies". May be an '80's feel, but the song that inspired the feel was released in May 2000. Of course harkening back to the above note, their drums are much more understated. Only a bit less reverb, but much lower on the fader. Maybe I should remix. The vocals are tricky, as it's already at the lowest level I could find at which I can understand every word. I may have to explore fader automation and cutting presence (2.5k @ Q=1?) in the electric guitar.
3) The guitar was me. I mean, the guitar kind of represented me while I was writing, particularly the lyrics. This song was terribly difficult to record because of its subject matter. The only way I could get the notes out was to forget temporarily what it was about and just sing. It helped that something else was able to take over the crying for a while.
4) This is very much not my lyrical style. If I failed to connect with some listeners, it's likely because it's my first attempt at this approach. I almost always go for cleverness, full of internal rhymes and turns of phrase that make me wink internally and wonder if they'll spot what I did. This time I tried a combination of speaking in plain language (didn't even intend on rhyming), while kind of circling but never expositing the main symbolic image. A great criticism of this song would have been that my thematic model, "Her Diamonds", gives as first mention of its core metaphor, "her tears like diamonds on the floor". You always know what the diamonds are. I never did that, so there's no grounding for what the cloud is. I played with moving the "life in ashes" phrase to the first pre-chorus, but even if I'd been able to get it to work, I think the allusion would still have been too subtle.
5) The phrase "I guess that I should care or something" was inspired by the line "because tomorrow might be good for something" in the song "Unwell". I'll stop here in my list of places where I tried to merge in many different points of reference to other MB20 and Rob Thomas solo stuff. Suffice to say I wanted a song that could plausibly have been written by the original artist.
6) The reality of South Bend does not jive with the song. A cold winter day here simply does not allow for liquid rain. When I say "the winter snaps at my skin", there's quite a bit of poetic license. Maybe late autumn.
7) It's cool you spotted the raincoat mention. That line sums up all that I have left of her: ashes, a raincoat, and loss.
8) I wrote as if the original song is cannon. Thus concepts like regret are conceived in response to the angry reactions in the original song. How do you reconcile even righteous anger with being face to face with the reality that it doesn't matter now? My own experience was different though. My mother did not behave erratically because of a psychological reaction to the cancer; it was the brain tumors themselves. Thus my own feelings at the time were simple sadness. The regret to me is about all the usual stuff that you look back on. Everything in your life up to that point gets analyzed until you find things to feel guilty about. "Everything that was said, or wasn't."
9) My mom was a professional dancer. Ballet and musical theatre. So that's where that came from.

Anonymous said...

Great write up! I starting crying half way through your review. I'm glad you loved this song. I did as well.

Dave Leigh said...

@Brian, as I mentioned in my SpinTunes review, "I can easily see this as an accompaniment to interpretive dance with or without lyrics."

Knowing that your mother was a professional dancer just gives me one more reason for considering this song an epic win. She would have been proud.

JoAnn Abbott said...

Dave, you mentioned you didn't get "the distinction between the "tolling" and "chiming" of the bells of St. Mary's."
Tolling bells signify loss and sorrow; bells are tolled as if counting out the last seconds of a persons life, to let others know of their passing. Chiming bells are more celebratory in nature, calling people to church and to praise. I don't know if Brian intended it this way, but by putting tolling first, then chiming, he beautifully shows the passage from sorrow at his mothers loss to acceptance and the start of his being able to celebrate her life, just as his use of "dancing" in the description of the ashes does- the memory and hope of her continued dancing wherever she is now.
Time to wipe my eyes...

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