Stolen Scraps of a Great Feast of Language - Part II

Part II of some thoughts on lyrics.

Part I:

Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2

Smile - Pearl Jam

Life Goes On / Hit Em Up - 2Pac

Part II:

I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash

Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers

4. I Hung My Head - Johnny Cash

This song is actually a cover of Sting from his Mercury Falling album. Personally, I find the Johnny Cash version more compelling. Admittedly, I heard the Johnny Cash version first but I think Cash’s more stripped down arrangement and more mournful near-spoken delivery serves the phenomenal lyrics better. The Sting version, to my ear, feels a little over arranged for the subject matter.

Stripping a song down, particularly a song that has a relatively simple structure and melody really drives the attention to the lyrical content. This song has a very narrative drive and doesn’t even have much of a chorus hook. The absence of a chorus is another thing that drives listeners to the lyrics.

The song is a first person story of a man who accidentally shoots and kills someone, his subsequent trial, and his awaiting of the gallows.

Most of the song is written fairly passively, with things happening to the narrator.

My brother’s rifle went off in my hand” and “And then it came to me just what I had done.” All the passive voice gives the impression that, at the beginning, the narrator hasn’t quite accepted his responsibility for the tragedy. “The gun just went off” rather then “I pulled the trigger.”

This passivity changes in the courthouse at the emotional climax of the song where the narrator says, in active voice the entire time:

I felt the power of death over life

I orphaned his children

I widowed his wife

I begged their forgiveness

I wish I was dead

I hung my head

There’s nothing melodramatic in these lyrics and reading them on the page they almost sound matter of fact. Cash’s delivery is not maudlin or particularly emotive, either. But the verbs “orphaned” and “widowed” are very powerful choices here and the simple directness of the statements deliver a hammer strike to the listener and drive home the utter finality and terrible permanence of the damage the narrator has inflicted.

The ending verses directly parallel the song’s opening, with the narrator, now awaiting the gallows, seeing a lone rider crossing the plain.

And he'd come to fetch me

To see what they'd done

And we'd ride together

To kingdom come

I prayed for god's mercy

For soon I'd be dead

I hung my head

I hung my head


5. Miss Atomic Bomb - The Killers

This song is written from an interesting perspective. The narrator is remembering and describing events that happened long ago, which allows for a kind of reversal of dramatic irony where the listener knows less about the significance of the events than the narrator does. The song is explicit about this, in the first verse saying

I wonder what you came to be

This is a similar narrative framework used to great effect in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectation” and allows the narrator to drop omens into the narrative that the character that is experiencing the actions in the past doesn’t recognize. From chapter 11 of the book, where a young Pip is talking to the girl he will torment himself over:

“Because I’ll never cry for you again,” said I. Which was, I suppose, as false a declaration as ever was made; for I was inwardly crying for her then, and I know what I know of the pain she cost me afterwards.

The recollection allows for narrative distance from what will be earth shaking events for the character and allows equivalence between the narrator’s comments on the actions and the actions themselves. We can tell from the asides that something is going to go horribly wrong here, but for now we’re left in suspense as to how it will unfold.

In the song, the narrator in the present knows what these events will eventually cost him, but the distance allows him to almost casually drop the song’s main recurrent image of the girl as an atomic blast on his life without having to wade in the specifics of what occurred.

When I look back on those neon lights

The leather seats, the passage rite

I feel the heat, I see the light

Miss Atomic Bomb

The past already happened and can’t be changed now, only recalled. The chorus tag line of “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” isn’t a threat. It’s simply what is going to happen.

There’s so many well chosen lyrics in this song that it could probably support an entire blog post by itself, but one of the standouts to me is near the end. It’s a part where the music quiets and becomes almost reflective. The narrator is firmly in his present at the beginning, though the rising emotion of the passage starts to blur the line between past pain and current acceptance once the atomic bomb reference shows up again:

The dust cloud has settled, and my eyes are clear

But sometimes in dreams of impact I still hear

Miss Atomic Bomb

I'm standing here, sweat on my skin

And this love that I've cradled is wearing thin

But I'm standing here and you're too late

Your shock-wave whisper has sealed your fate

What’s done is done. There’s nothing to fix now, sometimes we go so far afield from who we were that we can’t go back again. To return to Great Expectations, this is the last line of the book as it originally ended*, after many years after the events of the novel Pip runs into Estella in London.

I was very glad afterwards, to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

* Dickens changed the ending after a friend reviewed it to make it more of a happy ending for Pip and Estella; personally I think the original ending is better, more powerful, and more true to the perspective running through the book.


Final thought on lyrics: Be careful about looking lyrics up online. Here’s what has listed for “All Along the Watchtower.

Businessmen - they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None will level on the line

Nobody of it is worth*.

Um.... what? Its sort of looks like the kind of thing that would be transcribed from the song phonetically by someone who only speaks Bulgarian. Or maybe Sean.

*Should be this:

Businessmen they drink my wine

Plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line

Know what any of it is worth.

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