May 27 2013

When will you come back home?

As someone who becomes obsessed with things generally, and musical ideas in particular, I have to a large extent inhabited the Ryan Adams song "When will you come back home?" over the past couple weeks. Often, recording a song helps me kick an obsession. Once I've totally dissected a song to its component parts, re-recorded, mixed, mastered, edited, and posted a film of the song, I can finally put it to bed. But this time, no such luck.

What makes this song so great? It comes on the first disc of the otherwise unremarkable Cold Roses double album. The chord progression is nothing special:

Verse (A part):
E                        B                 
Something in the way she eases my mind and
A                            F#m
lays me 'cross the bed til I close my eyes
A                              B                  E
stirs me in the morning till I can't ever be satisfied [repeat]

Verse (B part):
           A                B                   E     A
If I could find my way back home, where would I go?
when everything about me I used to be
shivers in the sheets an the blankets of snow
A                       B
out there in the woods, looking for me

E                             A
When, when will you come back home? [repeat]
F#m                         A
No one leaves the lights on    in a house where
nobody lives anymore

C#m              A                    E       A    E  A
Everything about me that you liked is already gone
C#m              A                   E  A
Everything about me we loved is gone

As usual, the chords above differ from the transcriptions available online, because online transcriptions often kind of suck. The song goes from the tonic (E) to the V, IV, and ii. It's all quite standard and simple, but that makes it durable. The melody is simple and wonderfully melancholy in a way that modern country for me is typically incapable of.

Close reading

Can the lyrics make a song great by themselves? No, but they can carry a lot of the weight, and the lyrics here do. Adams is a flawed songwriter who tends to work on quantity rather than quality. But here, the songwriting is top notch.

Something in the way she eases my mind

and lays me 'cross the bed til I close my eyes

stirs me in the morning til I can't ever be satisfied

The song begins as an expression of the past, though we don't initially know it. He uses the present tense; of course, the woman still exists, and she could still do these things. And in his reverie, perhaps he forgets that. He's dwelling on the good times, but we're in for a crash.

I leave Carolina every night in my dreams

like the girls who try to love me that I only leave

rock me like a baby doll and hold me to the chest

but I'm always running too fast

We're caught in a bit of a cliche. The speaker is the vision of a rambling man, a malcontent who wants love but is to various degrees incapable of accepting it. He's never content, he ruins things and creates chaos, thrives on it, even. He knows what he has, and knows he's going to lose it.

We're still not in the now; we haven't heard about "her", this particular her. Are we still with her? Is this a worried song or a lamentation?

 If I could find my way back home, where would I go?

when everything about me I used to be

shivers in the sheets and the blankets of snow

lost out in the woods, were you looking for me?

The first line of this passage is almost too cute. Obviously if you can find your way back home, the implication is that you would go home. But that isn't the implication here: he doesn't know how to maintain a relationship, but even if he did, would he? Is that ultimately what he would want, something stable, something healthy? Or is the need for chaos too great? Here we finally get a glimpse of why: "everything about me I used to be" is lost, maybe gone. The speaker isn't committal, but he's open to the idea that he's unlovable, a broken man who breaks things around him. And we still don't know if they're still together!

When, when will you come back home?

When, when will you come back home?

No one leaves the lights on in a house where

nobody lives anymore

The monologue ends, and the speaker finally addresses his lover. She's left him, their house, their home. He's still there, but nobody lives there. Is he sincere when he says he's nobody without her? The previous lyrics don't seem to describe that in so many words. We're left thinking this is merely a plea, rather unlike the frank and honest words that came before. He is done conversing and only begs.

Loaded like the boxes up in the bedroom

coming off the hinges like the door

the shadows dancing up in the windows

they're not who we are—they're who we were

The image of a couple, shadows seen through the canvas of a window drapery, one of them packing her stuff up to leave for real, everything falling apart. But why does he mix tenses? They are who we were: what does that mean? Are we back in his memory, or is he alluding to the actual couple in the here and now? If the latter, who we were perhaps refers to when they were strangers, rather than before they were close. The more obvious interpretation, absent this, is that he remembers all the good times up in the bedroom, but these lines indicate perhaps not.

I'm not gonna break, but if I do

I'm gonna shatter like the glass I turned your heart into

I'm broken like the windows in the house where I used to live

This is kind of an interesting internal conversation. First "if" he were to break, but then "I'm broken". It's interesting in the first place because of the obvious falsehood that he's not going to break, which clearly has already happened. Ryan Adams to a certain extent still exists in the world that Tom Waits does, that Bob Dylan does, a time where men are over-feeling but under-emoting. They don't change their status to "it's complicated" on Facebook and then blog about it on their Livejournal—they drink alone and suffer and ramble around, wallowing in heartache and directing it to creativity when not hurting themselves with drugs.

I'm not sure what "I'm broken like the windows in the house where I used to live" is supposed to indicate. It's almost a throwaway, something to fill in the verse and strain the metaphor which was already strained in the prior line. One is left to speculate whether the house he used to live in is their shared house, or just a nostalgic memory of an old shitty place he used to live in.

Everything about me that you liked is already gone

Everything about me we loved is gone

In the bridge, he acknowledges, or at least posits, that she should stay away. In a song whose chorus is an open plea to come back, it's wonderfully out of place (it also proves he is talking to her, not himself). Everything about me "we" loved is gone. He hasn't just grown into a person that's incompatible with her, he's actually become a wretch, in his own eyes and hers. The song's title has an obvious answer: never. Nor does he think the woman should return. But knowing something is bad for another person doesn't make us not selfishly want it. But in fact, we gather that he more or less deliberately pushed her away.

What a brilliant piece of writing. The inner thoughts mixed in with memories of conversations of the two people, the nostalgia and the self-hatred. The images conjured are wonderful and sad.

Transcription notes

By far the hardest thing to do in covering a song is listening to it. Listening is a skill I learned long after I was able to play. Playing is mechanical, brainless even, but listening is tough as hell. The toughest thing of all to listen to and unpack is vocal harmony. Although I did it by ear, a little trickery allowed me to actually isolate the backup vocal of this song from the lead vocal during the chorus, verifying that I had it right.

This was only possible because while the lead vocal is mixed into both channels, the backup vocal shows up mainly in the right channel. By separating the waveforms for the two channels, inverting the left channel, and adding to the right one, it is possible to hear Ryan singing just the backup:

The guitar part in the intro wasn't posted anywhere on the net. In the recording above I played it in hybrid style.


(Click to enlarge.)