Anatomy of a Song: "Come Back to Me"

Anatomy of a Song: "Come Back to Me" April 8, 2014

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.

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  • Lydia

    You’re much more objective on this one than I am. I can’t concentrate on how clever the lyrics are, because I’m too distracted by what *terrible, no-good, dangerous advice* this is giving the woman.
    He’s essentially affirming her in going out and following an immature, subjective feeling that she needs to “see life,” even try out other men’s lips (!!), have all kinds of “experiences,” in order to feel that she has actualized herself or some such nonsense. That’s a recipe for disaster *for her*. If he loves her, he certainly should want to “hold her back.” That isn’t selfishness but love. This woman sounds like she’s a flake who is heading along a path that could easily destroy her life. Yet the song takes her childish desire to go out and fly or have dubious adventures, kiss new lips and what-not, very seriously as part of what she needs or shouldn’t be held back from. That’s a dreadful philosophy. It affirms narcissistic women in dumping good men because of a vague sense of their own importance and their own need for adventure.

  • Oh, absolutely. I completely agree with you, I frankly had no idea what the singer saw in this girl based on the description of her the song is painting! My rather cynical response would be “Trust me dude, you are soooo much better off without this air-head chick!” But unfortunately it’s locked in this kind of a feminist framework that gives these aspirations of hers much more weight than should be given to them, which is essentially… zero.
    However, trying to go around to the other side here, I do hear a bit of a sharp undercurrent to a couple of those lines. Like “Yes, I’m sure there are some ferris wheels you need to go get stuck on, somewhere. *jab*” But that’s kind of subtle, and the earnestness of the rest of the song does seem to imply that any desire on his part to “hold her back” is, as you say, selfish. And yet psychologically, could we argue that it’s realistic? Perhaps the man subliminally reasons, “I can’t exactly lock her in the basement, she’s an adult, if she wants to leave me I have no legal power to literally stop her.” So, faced with the unstoppable fact that *she is leaving*, he tries to create this fantasy wherein perhaps this really is best for her, and perhaps it’s selfish for him to force her to stay with him anyway, etc. Hence “I can’t stop you” becomes “I shouldn’t stop you.”
    However, one good thing built into the lyric is the fact that he does understand how the world works, and he KNOWS she won’t be happy by the time it’s all said and done. So one could say that it’s under-cutting the philosophy of self-actualization in the end, by heavily implying that once she’s seen the world, it will be the loyal man who’s always waited for her that she comes back to. Her taste in men, it’s indicated, is not that great, so this isn’t a far-fetched conclusion to draw. But I agree with you that in the process, the man is under-selling himself. “Hope you find someone else who deserves you,” really? As if the speaker is assuming he doesn’t merely based on her frivolous whims? But then again, maybe the listener is supposed to react that way, from the outside looking in. It might be believable that the speaker is discouraged in that way, but we as the listener can hear his story and see in our own minds who really deserves whom.
    So that is my attempt to break out of the scientific analysis of the song and get into the psycho-analytic part with you, which I find fun as well. 😉

  • Lydia

    I _think_ that if she comes back to him he and she will still be completely non-judgmental. That was her “fling,” something she “had to have” to complete herself or some such nonsense, even if she has gotten herself into disastrous or sordid trouble of some kind or other. I would contrast a set of lyrics that are lighter but similar: “One Fine Day.” Whether attributed to the guy or the girl, the phrases are things like “you only want to run around” and “you’ll come to me when your world is upside down.” It’s a _little_ pathetic (just waiting while the other person runs around), but more judgmental (“run around” is pretty harsh) and also more confident that the other person will crash and will admit having made a mistake.

  • Yes, perhaps I’m being too sensible in assuming that it would be like “Facepalm! What a jerk I was! You’re a terrific guy honey and I totally see that now. I will never do anything that callous and dumb again.”
    You’re right to contrast it with “One Fine Day,” a great Carole King classic. I think our pop songs used to have a bit more zing to them.