Recently I heard some talented students record a song that I’ve always liked, and still do—“If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” by Sting. Great groove, strong chorus, interesting and unexpected chord changes and, as is usually the case with Sting, a soaring, catchy melody.
But today I’m looking into the song’s lyrics, which bring up questions that I think arise for most songwriters when writing. Questions about keeping focus… and when, in the lyric, to let yourself shift or loosen focus… or not.
Let’s say you’re lucky enough to come up with a good Title/Chorus, maybe even one as strong as Sting’s:
If I Ever Lose My Faith In YouThere’d be nothing left for me to do
Where do you go from there? Sting chose, very wisely I think, to take a page from the basic songwriting playbook—he made a List Song, ending in “BUT.” In other words, he made a list of things that, if he lost faith in them, as rough as it might be, he’d be OK. Then comes the “BUT”… If I Ever Lose My Faith In You… now that would be a disaster.
This “list song” strategy is one that’s been used in many thousands of songs and will continue to be used. If it’s done well, it’s just effective. Examples include Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started” (“I did this list of incredible things BUT I Can’t Get Started With You”), U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (“I did this list of incredible things BUT I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Here’s a list of exciting and worldly things you might do BUT you still Gotta Serve Somebody”).
Honesty compels me to say that in “Lose My Faith” Sting did not carry out this strategy quite as effectively as these other songwriters did in the above songs. Don’t misunderstand; Sting’s a great songwriter with a number of classics to his credit. Whether you think it was a good idea or not, he just let himself—intentionally, I’m sure— get a little loose on the lyric of this one.
Let me try to elucidate why I say that.
You could say I lost my faith in science and progressYou could say I lost my belief in the holy churchYou could say I lost my sense of directionYou could say all of this and worse BUT
So far so good; right on topic.
Some would say I was a lost man in a lost worldYou could say I lost my faith in the people on TVYou could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians They all seemed like game show hosts to meBUT
The ‘game show’ line is a wisecrack; it’s an aside… it doesn’t set up the “But.” It draws attention away from the main idea of the song and to the writer. It’s only one line though, right?
I never saw no miracle of scienceThat didn’t go from a blessing to a curseI never saw no military solutionThat didn’t always end up as something worse but Let me say this first
Now he’s completely abandoned his plan in favor of philosophizing about the state of the world. At this point in the song, he feels he has something more important to say than what he originally started out to say—which is, of course, his prerogative.
There’s no law that says a writer has to stick with the “plan” (in fact there are no songwriting laws at all), and some songs effectively abandon what seems to be their original “plan.” But this song, and this type of song (the list with a twist?), isn’t one of them, in my opinion. It’s a “set ‘em up and knock ‘em down” kind of writing situation (see Ira Gershwin, Bono, Bob Dylan above). At its best, it’s about how imaginatively the writer can illustrate their main idea.
I think in most songs it’s best to think about the verses in terms of setting up the chorus (if there is one). But the list song almost
Finally… Sting… Gordon Sumner… please forgive me! I’m a fan; you’re a great songwriter and singer, not to mention one of my favorite bass guitarists. But over the last week I listened to your song twenty times and couldn’t help but notice what I’ve pointed out above.
This article originally appeared in the author’s blog, found at tonyconniff.com