"Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart" - Chris Cornell - Feeling! Structure! Mandolins!

The admirable Kendal Osborne recently commented that banjos can never really sound sad, though mandolins can...

Pretty interesting. And there really aren't so many mandolins around in mainstream music (so few that the music magazines unimaginatively couldn't resist referring to Chris being 'inspired' by Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore". Anyone else hear that song in this song? Not me).

So what about the song? SongExpresso's normal mission is to review songs with outstanding lyrics. And in SongExpresso's house, Chris Cornell has near untouchable status for his past work (and sublime vocals). [But, speaking very quietly, these lyrics really aren't so outstanding... 'right' to rhyme with 'ripe' and 'right' in the same verse? And the 'hole in the head' line seems not quite to fit into the melody (or the mix). Anyways...]

For a change, SongExpresso just wants you to take a listen to the song structure, for yes, here maybe we can learn some things:

Intro: mandolin solo
Verse 1: plus vocal
Verse 2: plus bass and strings
Chorus: plus acoustic guitar and piano
Verse 3: plus drums
Verse 4: plus backing vocals
Chorus: keep going!
Middle 8: back most things off a bit
Solo: plus fuzzy lead guitar
Middle 8 again: where did that come from?
Chorus: strip down to just mandolin and vocals for the first part and then build again
Final Chorus: bring back everything, including fuzzy guitar over the top.

(not counting various pads and effects and other synthy things inevitable in professional studio productions).

It's a long list... It's not just Verse-PreChorus-Chorus-Verse-Prechorus-Chorus. And SongExpresso found - if not the lyrics - the soundscape and feeling (aha!) quirkily attractive. So on to the takeaways:

  • Unusual instruments: mandolin! fuzzy guitar! Not for everyone or every song but these do place this song in a very individual and not totally commercial space. Bold (folky? trippy?) choices. Care is needed with this for those of us that don't have Chris's heroic voice (and fan-base) to carry the song. But in these days of electronic instruments, these are available to all of us to add individuality (to the right demo at least).
  • Build: again, some bold choices here. No drums for over a minute. But it doesn't lose our interest. SongExpresso thinks this is partly due to the "plucky" percussive mandolin sound (and strings) providing a rhythm track. Then we have the appearance of various different instrumentation, and of course the vocals which are the star turn. By the time we get to verse 3 we have been through around 5 different levels of instrumentation - to SongExpresso's ear this is pretty unusual but potentially usable to our advantage.
  • Middle 8(s): someone once said that the middle 8 should be the high point of the song. SongExpresso thinks that is good advice - the break, bridge or middle 8 shouldn't be an afterthought or just a break from the continuity of the song, but really add something new, emotionally, feeling-wise (there it is again), most likely through a noticeable change-up of rhythm, melody or progression. What's interesting here is that Chris liked his so much he did it twice. Who else has done this? Again, not for all songs, but if the middle 8 really is the best passage, why not repeat?
  • Guitar solo I: rumours of the death of the guitar solo may be exaggerated... However, SongExpresso insists that - like drums - guitar solos have to serve the song and not the other way around. What's the purpose of this one here? It does break up the double middle 8 (middle 16 anyone?) which probably was necessary. And it serves as an instrumental chorus - another vocal chorus would have been too much. Finally, being based on the chorus, it can be added over the final chorus to give us yet another level of build. SongExpresso is not convinced that any of these actually justify the addition of the solo: if this was a deliberately "commercial" song then I'm sure we would have had just one middle 8 and maybe brought the fuzzy guitar in over the final chorus for a bit more hype anyway. But on balance it seems to have been a good choice, to accomodate the double middle 8 and continue to add interest.
  • Guitar solo II: saying the same thing in a different way, if you must have a guitar solo, keep it short and make it go for maximum one chorus - then you can bring it back over your final chorus. (If you are a rock band, ignore what I just said. Of course.)

Is SongExpresso being unfair on those lyrics? What other song examples are there with as many as six levels of build? Who else has used two middle 8s? Is the guitar solo dead in commercial music? Should it be? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear your thoughts.