Neutral Milk Hotel – The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
When you were young you were the King of Carrot Flowers.
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.
And your Mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder.
And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor
As we would lay and learn what each others bodies were for.
And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you.
And from above you how I sank into your soul
Into that secret place where no one dares to go.
And your Mom would drink until she was no longer speaking.
And Dad would dream of all the different ways to die
Each one a little more than he could dare to try.
I figured I would start off with a simple yet wonderful song off of a classic indie album – Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album In the Aeroplane over the Sea.
Now, a good part of what strikes me initially about this song is 1) The lyrics and 2) The overall sound of song; the instruments used, the rhythm of the acoustic guitar, the singer’s voice, the low-fi production, etc. I’ll just call 2) The Arrangement and Production.
To understand this song, I could talk about the lyrics. But I don’t feel that the entire weight of the song rests on the words. In other words, if someone who didn’t speak English listened to this song, I’m fairly sure they could appreciate it as well. I could talk about the arrangement and production but, to a certain extent, that is somewhat superficial when it comes to the core of the song – the part that you as a songwriter would create before you showed it to your band or a producer. If you played the song on acoustic guitar and sang along with it, i.e. stripped away the arrangement and production, the song shouldn’t really lose it’s impact. If it did, it would probably not be a very well-written song.
So, apart from 1) and 2), I want to know if there’s anything else going on in the song that is as adventurous, unique and as striking as the lyrics and the arrangement, yet which forms the essence of the song from a songwriting point of view. To do that, I’m going to explore a) The Chords b) The Melody c) The Form.
A) The Chords
[You can find the chords here]
The first thing I like to do, when I hear a song I’m interested in, is to figure out what the chords are. For one, once you know what the chords are you can play it on your instrument of choice and sing (if you’re so inclined). But I also think that the chords are the most structural aspect of the song in determining the different parts (verse, choruses, bridges) and vital in giving the song its personality.
For some songs, it is pretty easy to figure out what the chords are if you’ve messed around with how chords sound in different orders (progressions) long enough. But you can always use a search engine to find the ‘song name’ + “chords” and, if it’s well known enough (as this song is), you’ll find someone who’s taken the trouble to write out the chords for you.
So, for The King of Carrot Flowers, here is how I would write out the chords:
Chords: (all chords are one measure/bar, or 4 beats, unless indicated)
F, C (1/2 measure), Bb (1/2 measure);
C (2 measures), Bb (2 measures);
Looking at this, it’s pretty clear that the songwriter (Jeff Mangum) doesn’t use a whole lot of chords in this song – a grand total of 3. He also uses chords that anyone who has played guitar for a week would know. Even the chord progression, that is, the order in which the chords appear in a given key (F Major in this case), is probably one of the most common in all songwriting. Using roman numerals (so we have a constant, regardless of key), the chord progression would be indicated as:
F – I
C – V
Bb – IV
So, I’m going to plug in the roman numerals to the chords and end up with:
I (with a brief switch to IV and back), V, IV;
It has quickly become apparent that there is nothing too innovative going on in the chords department. So, when I’m still wondering what makes The King of Carrot Flowers such a great song, I think I can narrow it down to something going on with the melody (either of the vocals or of the instruments) – for example, the way the melody interacts with the chords or the phrasing, OR the form – how different parts of the song are sequenced.
B) The Melody
I like to write out the melody in musical notation. I find that it’s helpful to be able to see what the notes look like to get a sense of various melodic aspects – does the melody have notes that move in steps? or in jumps? Are the parts of the melody, the phrases, similar in the direction they move – from top to down, from down to top, in an arc (music theorists call this the contour)? All these things are pretty specific and I don’t want to dwell on them right now. I do want to show something related to the melody that I noticed which is pretty easy to grasp – the phrasing.
Basically, the melody has to be made up of parts. Roughly whenever the singer takes a breath, a phrase ends and a new phrase begins. These blocks of melody, when ordered, can make quite an impact for better or for worse, depending on how they are ordered.
The musical notation I have mapped out is as follows. I am going to take the first three phrases of the song.
Now, you don’t really even have to read music to see that, visually, Phrase A and Phrase B are pretty similar (you can probably even tell just by listening to them). However, the third phrase, Phrase C is different – it starts on a different note, has a little more ups and downs with the phrase itself and it’s even slightly longer than the first two phrases.
Now, going on under these phrases is the acoustic guitar playing the chords. Referring back to a little to the ‘Chords’ section, we saw that there are really only two little chord progressions going on, which I termed Part A and Part B. For the Phrase A and Phrase B, we have Part A going on underneath – so F, C and Bb. When the melody goes into Phrase C, the chords change to Part B – just C and Bb. Right at the end of Phrase C, the chords go back to Part A.
What I found interesting about this ordering of phrases is:
1) There are only 3 phrases in this section of music. Countless songs have had groups of 4 phrases so that singers could rhyme the ends of the 1st with the 3rd phrase and the 2nd with the 4th (or even 1st with 2nd; and 3rd with 4th). Look at the lyrics to the first verse of Hard Day’s Night, for example:
It’s been a hard day’s night
And I’ve been working like a dog.
It’s been a hard day’s night
I should be sleeping like a log.
This is a more typical (I guess you could even say old-fashioned) type of phrase grouping that I would term as ABAB (based on the rhyme scheme as well as the fact that lines 1 & 3 are identical in melody as are line 2 & 4).
2) The third phrase doesn’t sit on top of the same chords as the first two phrases. It is different in content, so it justifies having something different go on in the chords underneath.
Now, this may not seem like such a big deal, but when I first broke this song down a while ago, I was intrigued to find that Jeff Mangum wrote the melody of this song in phrase groups of 3. It made me reflect on my own music and notice how rigid my phrasing was (or occasional complete lack thereof) and allowed me to add to my songwriting arsenal the possibility of writing a 3rd phrase to offset two initial phrases, rather than constantly writing in groups of 4 phrases where the first phrase rhymes with the 3rd and the 2nd phrase rhymes with the 4th.
C) The Form
The form of pop songs usually contains verses, choruses and occasionally a bridge, so that there is some variation from simply repeating the verses and choruses for the full length of the song.
In this song, there is really only a verse, that set of three melodic phrases repeated but with different lyrics (which is what makes if a verse and not a chorus). The verse repeats 4 times throughout the song. There is a slight extension after Verse #2 to make room for the solo and at the end of Verse #4 where Jeff Mangum extends the word “try” with some additional melody.
Having a song made up of only one section, i.e. verse/chorus/bridge is pretty unusual. But, seeing as the song is only 2:00 minutes long and a moderately slow-paced song as well, it doesn’t feel overly repetitive. And there’s also that chord progression change within the verse itself (again, rather unusual) that detracts from monotony.
So, after looking at the chords, the melody and the form of this song, we found out that there is not much interesting going on with the chords but there is something noteworthy going on with the phrasing and the form. I definitely feel that the way Mangum balances two phrases with a third phrase and a couple of different chords within the verse of the song is pretty cool and definitely something that I can keep in mind when I am writing a verse section that sounds tired because I’ve written 4 phrases over the same group of chords. And it’s encouraging to know that I don’t have to feel obligated to have a chorus in a song. Who knew?
Now, if you’re going to look for a song that pre-dated this 1998 song to find a songwriter who used only three phrases in his verses, I have to stop you. I don’t mean to say that Jeff Mangum was the first songwriter to write 3 phrases in a verse instead of 4, or that it’s only something that indie songwriters do. It’s just good songwriting to vary structural things like phrasing and form, and, in a ‘good’ song, Jeff Mangum did just that.
[Incidentally, if you listen to the next set of lyrics of Hard Day's Night you would actually notice that The Beatles go into a section with only three short phrases (for variation), the first two of which are very similar and the third is different; Part of why The Beatles were such good songwriters.]
But we also noticed that not everything has to be non-traditional. Very often I have noticed that a songwriter tries doing something different in only a few aspects of the song. In this song, the chord progressions were very standard and traditional. However, in conjunction with a different approach to phrasing and to form, the song starts to feel a little more interesting to the ears. Add to that the lyrics, arrangement and lo-fi production, which I didn’t touch on, and you’ve got a song which in 1998 probably sounded pretty refreshing to the ears. And I would go so far as to say it still does.
Well, that’s it for this song. I hope your head doesn’t hurt and that this serves some purpose in aiding your songwriting endeavors. Constructive criticism/feedback is welcome.
Thanks for reading.