It’s been a really long time since I did an entry in this series, formerly known as “Poetry in Song,” and I’m not even sure that the folks who seemed interested when I first began it a few years ago are still hanging around. But in case they are, and in case anyone else enjoys reading my rambling about songwriting and would like to explore what makes a song work lyrically with me, here is another installment! Today, we’re picking a song from the world of pop/rock country music: “Come Back to Me” (Artist: Keith Urban, Album: Fuse). This is a heart-wrenching song from the perspective of a man whose love is leaving to chase after things that he knows can’t satisfy her.
Before we dive in, mention must be made of Urban’s ravishing guitar work and the way it just melts into that synth backdrop. True musicianship dat. But I’ll save the full-on Keith fan-girling for another day. Now, on to the lyrics of the song, which was written by Shane McAnnally, Brandy Lynn Clark, and Trevor Joseph Rosen (three members of what I like to call “The Nashville Machine,” aka that faceless throng of writers whom nobody recognizes by name and without whom good and bad pop music alike would grind to a halt). I tucked away three main tips from them.
1. Fresh rhyme scheme: Now, not all of these are perfect rhymes, but this is still very clever. The first verse is especially tight here. “If there’s sand that you ain’t wrote your name in, if you’re tired of the view from the same win…dow.” The word “window” both completes the first couplet and creates a fresh ending that’s waiting to be matched in the next one: “If there’s lips that you want to get drunk on, ferris wheels that you need to get stuck on…go.” This curious pattern is kept up all through the verses.
2. Repetition, with a twist: Repetition is a powerful tool, but it has to be used properly. This lyric offers some deft examples. Notice how the line “Go on and go unroll every map” almost sounds like “go on” is being said twice, because “un” and “on” are so similar-sounding. But in fact, an entirely new idea has been introduced—just so seamlessly the ear barely even catches it. And then there’s the conclusion of the chorus:
But if you gotta leave You gotta know I love you enough To let you go If there’s greener grass Hey, I want to hold you But I don’t want to hold you back
I can almost hear the “Aaaaah” of satisfaction that must have rippled round the co-writing session when someone came up with that line.
3. Verse/Chorus/Title/Verse/Chorus/Title: It’s a tried-and-true formula for a lot of popular music: First there’s the verse, then there’s the chorus, and the punchline is the Title of the Song. It works, mate. Nothing wrong with it. But, a great way to write an above-par lyric is to break from the formula a little bit. In this example, the title is actually a refrain that comes around at the end of the verses. This frees the chorus from being built around that one hook. Instead, “I want to hold you, but I don’t want to hold you back” becomes a hook in its own right. Meanwhile, you now have the option of ending the song with a whisper rather than a bang while still leaving the main thought lingering in the listener’s mind.
Those were the main things I took away from this lyric. There’s also a nice internal rhyme in “If you land with a tan and your shades on…” Dropping those in can enrich the flow even if they’re not serving the main rhyme scheme.
And that concludes today’s anatomy of a song! Hopefully this was interesting whether you’re a writer or just somebody who enjoys listening to good songs.