Metaphor (and its close friend simile) can be key in the lyric writing process. While there are common themes throughout much of contemporary music – relationships, social awareness or rebellion to name but a few – there are a million and one different ways to convey such.
Some metaphors have perhaps been a little overplayed – ‘rain', for example – which has been used so often as a synonym for hard times, it's become a fairly obvious cliché.
Some styles thrive on coming up with new metaphors on the hop – Snoop is infamous for turning up with nothing written down and just freestyling over beats, and while we can't all be that naturally gifted, there are good guides on how to practice getting there.
But what makes a good metaphor? And where should we be turning to come up with something innovative during the songwriting process?
Not so much singing an instruction manual – although Elton John famously did so with an oven manual in his An Audience With… in 1997. Taking terminologies from a specialist subject and applying them to wider life can be a winner.
A good example is Kenny Rogers' The Gambler where writer Don Schlitz took poker terms and uses them to convey life advice from a more experienced man (his father, as the story goes). “You never count your money/When you're sittin' at the table” means staying alert to the present and not getting caught up in what you can assess more definitively later.
“You gotta know when to fold em” advises that sometimes it's best to admit defeat. Interestingly, Schlitz wasn't a poker player, and offered the song to Willie Nelson, who is. Nelson turned it down. You don't need to be a specialist to write something special.
Sometimes you don't need a new metaphor; simply a fresh take on an old one can be startling. Massive Attack's Protection travels familiar themes about taking the blow for someone else – but Tracey Thorn singing in delicate female vocals in what is usually a macho male statement makes an instant ear-opener.
Likewise, the theme of chains has often been used as a metaphor for being hopelessly in love, tied to a partner. Afghan Whigs turned it on its head in What Jail Is Like in which Greg Dulli narrates a terrifyingly broken relationship.
He growls “You wanna scare me/Then you'll cling to me” and further illustrates “And it goes down every night/This must be what jail is really like.” It's almost an anti-metaphor; he's describing a relationship as a prison – and all the horrors that come with that – in contrast to the common trope of an unbreakable bond being the ideal.
After a soul covers EP (Uptown Avondale) and being sent on tour with Mudhoney (whose crowds likely weren't the best fit), the LP Gentlemen helped define the band as being unafraid to explore darker paths. Dulli has been very comfortable on those roads ever since.
Sometimes a song is so emotional that the only way to put it out into the world is to mask it; to hold ourselves in reserve. Little Green from Joni Mitchell's Blue was described lyrically as ‘impenetrable' on its release in 1971, with Rolling Stone commenting ..”the pretty, “poetic” lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding.”
Some guesses were the title referred to being a little inexperienced, and looking to the future as “He went to California/Hearing that everything's warmer there”. In fact, it was about Mitchell's past, and the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965.
Those events were not public knowledge until 1993 when an old roommate sold the story to a tabloid. Mitchell and her daughter Kilauren Gibb are now reunited. However, listening to the song before and after learning its true meaning reveals how much of its metaphor is inviting the listener to make their own interpretation. It may have stayed that way forever.
Not everything needs to be signposted. Sometimes leaving vagaries and questions can be a highly effective – and very intimate – technique.