Real Human Stories.
It seems impossible to universally describe the criteria for a song to be “existential” in nature, or quantify any particular song’s existential-ness over others’. However, the moment of hearing and recognizing a song that resonates so deep within the human experience is undeniable. Despite the neurologists, including Oliver Sacks himself, who have attempted to explain why we have music fixations or even music addictions—the interior experience is largely subjective, no matter how much our brains may light up identically during an fMRI scan.
Often, I think we conflate the art with the artist, and listeners seek to identify with songs where we know the artist was in particular pain. There are myriad examples for this, but let’s take the singer songwriter Richard Swift for an example. Here was an immensely talented person, yet when you hear tracks from his breakout album Ground Trouble Jaw, as I did, way back when it came out, there is a remarkable sorrow looming behind every turn—even in songs where the premise is presumably joyful, like “Would You?” in which the speaker asks a hometown romantic prospect, someone who appears to be a compassionate listener, if she would would like to fall in love. What’s so sad about that? Yet the song is devastating in its withholding. The girl provides no answer other than “taking his hand” and he, apparently the undeserving lover, is confused as to “why she would stay.” Complexity without over-explanation. His question mostly just lingers in the air, asked over and over again in the chorus. Swift’s other songs, including his best known “Lady Luck,” in which he also pleads with a formless female entity, this time good ol’ Fortuna, the goddess who’s been this elusive since Shakespeare, for some respite. We can also assume that she’s not coming, no matter how he appeals. The song is strangely reassuring in the sense that we can ask for these comforts and acknowledge that we need them, but maybe know better that we’ll never receive them quite in the way we hope.
When Swift passed away last year, due to complications from alcoholism, it was a curious moment of illumination for someone like myself who wasn’t aware of his longtime struggles. And yet, the impulse was to almost immediately imbue these songs with more meaning—ah yes! Of course they were sad, because he was suffering! We were right to assume that there was something beyond the ambiguity of tone of the piece that made it connect on such a soulfully bleak level. But there’s something a little off with this assumption. The two songs that I’ve described are actually rather upbeat, wistful songs. They’re not outright depressing, and what makes them beautiful even after dozens of listens is that they nod to the complexity of the human experience—the desire that goes into anticipation, rather than the consummation and satisfaction of receiving. The uncertainty of these songs, the way they teeter on the edge of having resolution, is the single quality that makes them feel existential, even if they are, in some fashion, actually reassuring. It’s not really fair to go back and retroactively explain the tinge of something that you get from a song, or even a text, once you learn something about the author’s biography, when there’s no way to actually prove correlation between their personal suffering and their art. Especially because, as many artists of any stripe know, art that is made in pure, unchecked catharsis is often messy, half-baked, emotional dreck that merits several revisions to the point of unrecognizability to even be tolerable, if used at all.
This quality of uncertainty that I’ve mentioned is the closest I’ve come to the foremost criteria of an existential song. My personal preference is for songs to not over-explain, to withhold, even emotionally, and to introduce an ambiguity that is never addressed explicitly in the lyrics. And it is absolutely not relegated to indy musicians—in fact, some of the best examples I know are from mainstream music, even the stuff of pop hits, when done right. It’s the arena of emotions that Brill Building composers like Bacharach and David played in. The best Drake chart-toppers reflect this restraint (“Just Hold On (We’re Going Home),” “Hotline Bling,” “Don’t Matter to Me”), and interestingly, his songs that best fit this criteria are also on par with Steely Dan’s favored theme of self-loathing longing for girls who are on too many drugs or who party too much and who are otherwise just out of reach. Pretty existential.
Enough ink has been spilled over the 1960s as a cultural turning point, especially for the Western world, so I’ll just assume I don’t need to provide more context than this. But I find myself, especially as I get older, turn to a pair of songs from the late 1960s as perfect, existential capsules that haunt listeners over fifty years later with such enduring mystery there are entire books penned about them.
The first of such songs I remember hearing was “Wichita Lineman.” It seems that poor Jimmy Webb has told the story of writing this song so many times you can find several accounts that provide varying levels of detail. Was he living in a commune? Did his piano have a fresh coat of green spray paint? Was he recalling a childhood memory of driving through Oklahoma and seeing a lineman perched on a telephone poll? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the song that has become almost eponymously identified with Glen Campbell (of the handful that are), was not written out of sadness, per se. Webb was working for a paycheck, and he was a creative, so aware of the “emotional wreckage of life,” he saw an opportunity to tell a simple story about an everyman character familiar to him. The third verse was never finished, so Campbell and his producer Al DeLory filled in the gap with a brooding guitar solo, and, as was called for in this era of orchestral production, a swell of strings. Imagine what more we would know if the third verse were written. The story behind the song seems like a happy accident that could have easily been dismantled by over-writing. Webb sent the song off thinking they wouldn’t record something unfinished, and, by his account, embarrassed of the forced rhyme introduced in which has since been named “the greatest musical couplet ever written,” the inescapable “And I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time.” It’s a straightforward little paradox that the listener needn’t even ponder for its merciless truth. While there are interesting class implications that Webb intended us to hear, the Lineman character can be both a political statement or a mere symbol of what it feels like to be caught in some kind of romance that makes you feel so vulnerable you struggle to describe it, while you are removed from it, either spatially or spiritually.
On a similar note, a strong companion for “Wichita Lineman” is “Waterloo Sunset.” I would argue that both songs are character songs, in which we get an implicit story through an imagined perspective, “Lineman” introduces our character on the outset as “Waterloo” introduces our setting, the speaker’s apostrophe to the “dirty old river” Thames that chugs endlessly—not unlike the wind’s persistent whine in “Lineman”—while all life revolves around it, unnoticed by anyone, it seems, but our speaker. Ray Davies has certainly been interviewed as much as Jimmy Webb, but there is less of a codified anecdote behind the construction of this song. All we know is that it came to him in a dream, Waterloo was selected as a place of lifelong familiarity to him, and the song itself serves as some homage to the postwar life that his older sisters never got to experience—one of whom passed away suddenly while Davies was at an impressionable age. There is one explicit moment of contact, between the lovers named “Terry and Julie,” who Davies has described as utter stand-ins for the listener to flesh out how they wish. We get the impression that our speaker, in an almost voyeuristic ritual, watches this couple “from his window” amid all the banality of London life, seeing them as some symbol of hope or tenderness. What is most curious about this song is that distinct remove from the human connection—not unlike our lineman—and the smaller, but equally real paradox that the sunset could be called “paradise” when it’s over that “dirty old river,” and all of the young lovers like Terry and Julie seem to find refuge only after escaping over the bridge, leaving our speaker alone, again, at his window.
These two songs are perfect portraits of loneliness, but somehow, a loneliness that isn’t lonely. Each finds some consolation in the milieu—“I can hear you through the whine,” or the consolation of watching Terry and Julie’s assignation every Friday in the gloaming. After all, Davies’ narrator isn’t lonely, but he says he’s too “lazy” to go meet someone, which might belie a crippling insecurity, but again, we don’t know—there isn’t enough information to say conclusively. But there are a few other layers that unite these songs—one obvious factor is place. When Glen Campbell’s producer called up Jimmy Webb, it was for a follow-up hit to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” They specifically asked him for another “location song,” as Campbell was having a good run of those. Wichita is place, sure, but it’s meant to be a non-place: a vast expanse of isolation, nothing more. It serves almost more as the name of our character than situating him in an identifiable geography. Similarly, Waterloo Station near the River Thames is a hub of activity, our speaker even compares the commuters to pests, “swarming like flies”—such as the sheer crush of people becomes just as remote and impersonal as the flat, endless plains of Kansas. Additionally, these two places, which are more symbolic than real (no matter how much Londoners want to believe that The Kinks song is a patriotic tribute and somehow not a lament), still signal class. Who lives in Wichita that we know of? What job is a lineman? We have a portrait of a markedly blue collar professional who spends much of his life disconnected from people, yet ironically ensuring others’ communication through telephone wires. The nameless observer in “Waterloo,” like many Kinks songs, fixates on the working class people, ever growing in number, who have to take the subway to and from work, even to connect with each other. Yes, there is uncertainty in each song, but there is also a shared beauty in recognizing that everyday people have the same existential plights as those of us who are overeducated and self-obsessed with some sort of farther-reaching megaphone. In characterizing these storytelling figures as such, the effect is inherently universalizing a private, profound moment. These are songs that are so specific in the precise human discomfort they capture, yet so aggregate in the anonymity of their characters, yet another paradox that humanizes and includes us all.