Personal Meaning in Lyrics

… A little bit about the songs “Symmetry” & “October Skies” by way of example.

I sometimes write poetry but it seldom lends itself well as lyrical verse. When I am inspired to write lyrics, however, my process usually leads me to superimpose words over a previously composed melody, sort of like poetry but constrained to fit that pre-existing melody. I’m sure most lyricists do this to some degree or another but I admittedly often do this at an operatic level; in effect I write a lot of instrumental music and sometimes I’ll hear the melody as being performed by a human voice and it’s not uncommon for me to write lyrics with melodies that harmonize with other instruments or even echoes of themselves.

But here’s something that people don’t often seem to notice: my lyrics are often personal, sometimes deeply so. This is probably masked by that fact that I’m not the one singing them and perhaps they’re also obscured by use of metaphor. Let me use “Symmetry” by way of example.  “Symmetry” is what it seems to be at first brush – three discrete voices all sung by the same person, oddly overlapping – but it’s more than that. Sometimes these voices reinforce each other and other times they seem to conflict or even contradict one another. This is because they’re all internalized voices inside the same man’s skull, mine. I’d once replied in an interview that “I was going through a very rough patch in my life at the time” when I first began writing it (around 2000) but that doesn’t begin to encompass the array of health-related, marital, and career issues I was then facing and all of it on the heels of a couple of deaths in the family. I wrote “Symmetry” based on this feeling of ‘I need to face this squarely and I will somehow get through it.’ The song is representative of a head full of doubts, self-recrimination, and yet somehow reassurances all ricocheting around in the same skull. Let’s take a look at these lyrics again and listen now that you know those internal voices are all me trying  to come to terms with a seemingly-unraveling life, now that you know the pronoun ‘you’ in this song is me talking to myself:

“Symmetry”

Cast aside, a sacrifice
You redeemed your pride at such a price to pay
Remembrance in cold rain of a lifetime away
Ancient and bloodstained, a two-sided blade…
I can’t breathe!

Doubts that assail you at every turn
Echoes of failed youth and lessons unlearned yet today
Enduring the old pain, a dream’s promise unclaimed
Naked and unchained, a child again…
I can’t breathe!

Face the darkest night, a man alone, staring into the pyre (I can’t breathe!)
Burning bright, coming home, walking into the fire (I can’t breathe!)
There must be symmetry…

Small comfort in shadows and no peace in the light
In a world without heroes to continue the fight undismayed
Have you forgiven your own naïveté?
And cruel Fate that has dealt you a hand you’ve misplayed?
I can’t dream!

Gently wreathe your head, sins atoned, within a shroud of delusion (I can’t dream!)
Leave the dead, carved in stone, to find their own solutions (I can’t dream!)
There must be symmetry…

I’ve publicly stated several times that the song “October Skies” is about the sense of home as a place where my bones seem to resonate with the landscape. I wrote it to describe my distant childhood home in the Allegheny foothills, the overwhelming feeling of belonging there when I visit and the absolute surety that I will return someday for good. That’s very much true but it’s not quite the entire story.  I’ve done my best to put into words how deeply connected I feel to that area when I’m there, a resonance in my bones, but I always feel as though those words fall short of the mark. A few months back I went to the village graveyard in my hometown to pay my respects at the grave of a recently-deceased uncle (my father’s brother) and the nearby grave of my own brother. I wandered a bit and found myself standing at the foot of much older cenotaph still clearly marked “Warren Russell” – my grandfather’s grandfather – and the weight of our family history in that place was palpable to me. “October Skies” on the surface seems to be about this deep connection I feel to the landscape but it goes beyond that. My second wife Renée, although she has no real connection to those Allegheny foothills beyond her relationship with me, is the truest love of my life but is fourteen years younger than I. The recurring line “Although so far away I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay … but please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more” speaks of my inevitable death and the fact that I’ll likely leave her behind to live for decades longer after I depart this world but that I love her like no other. There’s emotional pain but also beauty in that thought.

For those that might wonder why I chose Meagan to sing it rather than a male it is quite simply that I felt that her beautiful voice fit the subject matter. The song isn’t gender-specific.

“October Skies”

The foothills of my home sing clear, calling to my bones…
Fields of darkened loam lie there, waiting for the snows…
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
But please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more…

The hillsides burn so bright, they stay, dancing in my eyes…
Lurid autumn light, gold flames coloring the sky…
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
Sure as coldest winter nights give way to warm days in due time…           

The pine and hardwood stands, above, looking down below
Running through my hands, the blood of the river flows
And although so far away, I’ll return to them someday … and I’ll stay…
But please know before I go, my dear, I love you ever more…

I love you, ever more…

The top picture hints at the autumn landscape of which I speak in “October Skies”. This picture was taken at Allegheny State Park; I don’t know when or by whom or I’d credit it accordingly. I found it on the ASP facebook page a few years ago and downloaded a copy. I haven’t doctored the colors or contrast at all and although I can’t speak for the original I can honestly say it often looks just like this. In fact this picture doesn’t really do it justice; sometimes it’s absolutely breathtaking.

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