Saturday, 19 August 2017

A Study in Songwriting: Ed Sheeran VS Snow Patrol

From the Viking skald telling Icelandic folk tales around a fire to Lin Manuel Miranda recounting the life of a founding father through hip-hop and show tunes, people have always used songs to tell stories. It presents perhaps a unique challenge to a creative individual, who must negotiate constraints to time, rhythm, rhyme and even alliteration - depending on the traditions of the time. Not to mention writing a tune to wrap the words around.

It goes without saying, then, that even among the best in the business, different people will be better at different aspects of this process. Take Snow Patrol's frontman and lead lyricist Gary Lightbody: he's written many memorable songs, 'Chasing Cars' and 'Run' being the most popular. But if you listen to songs like 'An Olive Grove Facing the Sea' or 'Headlights on Dark Roads,' it becomes clear that Lightbody is not the best of melody-writers. His tunes are often static, seldom rising to a peak in the chorus. But he is a very accomplished poet, injecting his songs with intelligent observations of love, obsession and fear.

Compare this to Ed Sheeran, another talented songwriter, who has of late gone full Maroon 5, swapping melancholy ballads for catchy pop anthems. ('Supermarket Flowers' is the one beautiful exception on his latest album.) His diversity of style is testament to his tune-writing ability, and he is also an excellent observer of contemporary relationships, but I think he still has some work to do lyrically. Let me give an example...

On their latest albums, Sheeran and Lightbody each present us with a song that tells a story about childhood love. For those listening along, these are 'Perfect' (Sheeran, Divide) and 'The Garden Rules' (Snow Patrol, Fallen Empires).

First let's look at how each song starts: Sheeran, ever the teenage heartthrob, includes the phrases 'I found a love', 'I found a girl' and 'you were the someone waiting for me.' Straight to the point - he's fallen in love, and he's going to tell you about it. Meanwhile, Lightbody uses his first verse to set the scene: 'There's the river, there's your house and there's the church; and there's us years ago.' To put it bluntly, Sheeran is telling us a story, while Snow Patrol are showing us one.

As Sheeran's song continues, he treats us to a sonnet-level blazon about this girl, recounting times they've had together, and the ambiguity is swiftly removed: they seem still to be together, perhaps even thinking about having kids. More stock phrases come in the second chorus: 'against all odds', 'be my girl' and 'I see my future in your eyes.' It really is a lovely, heartfelt, well-composed song. But it's not subtle by any means.

The Snow Patrol song, on the other hand, never really leaves the past. Lightbody doesn't take us forward in time, instead delving deeper into the relationship. Without telling us anything explicitly, he shows us that his infatuation with this girl was stronger than whatever feelings she had for him, and expresses how special he felt to spend time with her. The chorus consists of a simple refrain: 'Oh you'll never know how much I love you so.' This is the only time we truly return to the present, and it maintains the ambiguity. Is he still obsessed with this old flame? Or is he telling her now, in a present where they are together?

I think my point is that we could use more people like Gary Lightbody in popular music right now. Those who can use their lyrical gifts to show us interesting, emotion-fueled stories, rather than simply telling us what happened last night in an anonymous club or bar. Intelligent songwriting can shape a culture, bring perspective to a global disaster, provide emotional education to a wide audience. I've got nothing against party anthems, or indeed Ed Sheeran; but when all is said and done, that's the kind of music I want in my life.