From the Barbican to Brandon Flowers with Baião

All words are available to you in English when you write a song, but you need to take account of their shape in the mouth, as well as their shape in the mind of your listeners.

‘Mble’ is a slowed-down sound in English: amble, bumble, mumble, shamble. Slow and slightly chaotic. It’s a closed-mouth sound, it’s difficult to sing all the way through with jolly enthusiasm. Unless you rearrange the standard stress pattern of English words to throw extra energy onto the sound, to power you through the slow mbl.

In standard English pronunciation, feet would never pick up the powerful bounce that they’re given in Concrete and Clay. Especially not as part of the prepositional phrase ‘beneath my feet’. But the songwriters have given feet a trampoline power so that the singers land on the first syllable of crumble with the breath and rhythm they need to leave the word without getting tangled up with the ble.

Concrete and Clay” 

The sidewalks in the street
The concrete and the clay beneath my feet
Begins to crumble
But love will never die
Because we’ll see the mountains tumble
Before we say goodbye

Clever. Did you notice the rest of the band jump in on ‘feet’ at about 26 seconds in? And again at 1:01 and 1:36. Meaning-wise, it makes no sense to pay such attention to feet in a love song, but sound-wise, it makes all the sense in the world.

Concrete and Clay was written by band members Tommy Moeller and Brian Parker. How did they lock such an unusual pattern into the words, without making them sound clumsy or odd? When you put words into a song, it’s the music that sews them into place. Your audience accepts, and predicts an unusual stress pattern in English when you’ve set up an unusual musical rhythm beneath the words. Concrete and Clay is a British song to a Brazilian Baião beat:

Set up is important – Unit 4 + 2 give us a little time to warm up to the unusual staccato rhythm by using short, easy to understand/predict words. The beat is unusual, the grammar is unusual (‘you to me‘), but the song is a thing of beauty, so we quickly accept its pattern:

You to me
Are sweet as roses in the morning
And you to me
Are soft as summer rain at dawn, in love we share
That something rare

Soft, sweet, roses, love etc make it clear, straightaway, that this is a love song. So we know where we are. If the song had begun with construction materials like clay and concrete, we, the audience, would not have expected love as the subject. Concrete isn’t usually a positive concept:

The moral of the songwriting story? English words will dance for you, as long as you give them the right music and as long as you set up the right expectations. We all know that concrete is a solid substance, but you can use that agreed solidity to convey enduring love or to convey a never-ending, oppressive, grey concrete jungle. The word’s the same, it’s the songwriter’s job to make the word’s particular meaning, for this particular song, clear and easy.

Think of ‘crumble’. In Concrete and Clay the power of the word is intensified. ‘We’ll see the mountains crumble’, partly by placing crumble at the end of the line and partly by taking the stress away from ‘mountains‘ (by loading stress, unusually, onto see), locks mountains and crumble together, pushing the second stress unusually strongly onto crum. We understand the mountains as being active in their own crumbling. It’s subtle, but changing a standard stress pattern makes listeners pay extra attention.  All human interaction is a game of clues. We understand each other through signals woven into words.

Try reading the line “We’ll see the mountains crumble” as a standard English sentence (if you can, after hearing it placed to music!). I’d guess you put stress on the first syllable of mountains, which brings you to a slow, mouth-stop on crumble. Yes, the word crumble /ˈkrʌm.bəl/ always keeps the stress on the first syllable, but, as a songwriter, you can always moderate or exaggerate the shape of a word by deciding how to place it in music.

Words can do whatever you want them to do in a song. Robert Plant places mountains crumble in the middle of a line, to keep a slow love song slow. He ghosts the ble (at 42 seconds or so). The sensation you get from Robert Plant’s crumbling mountains is geologically slow (in comparison to the mountains active crumbling in Concrete and Clay). Robert’s singing a languorous love song, singing ‘Thank You’ to his lover.  He needs crumble to crumble slowly:

Think of crumble in Gladys Knight’s I will Survive. It’s placed at the end of the line, but the energy of the word is quite different from the matter-of-fact bounce of Concrete and Clay. This time crumble has to hold two points of view. ‘Did you think I’d crumble?’  has to hold a past likelihood that Gladys recognises and a present that gives her pride and strength. The stress pattern is conversational and normal. There’s no need for an extra run-up to the word. She’s talking about a man who expected her to crumble, so the word needs to be a mix of what he expected and what she’s now too strong to allow. She sings us both possibilities in one. It’s masterful songwriting and masterful singing:

It would be hard to place a slow word like crumble at the beginning of a line, unless you were singing to children about this:


Apple and Blackberry Crumble

In Walk Away, Franz Ferdinand place crumbles in a graveyard (about 2:49). It’s slow and deliberate, speeded up slightly by the addition of down:

The moral of the story? All English words, of any shape or size, will dance for you in a song, if you put them in the right place and make sure that you’ve worked out how to provide them with the extra energy they need. The other words in the line won’t mind being given extra attention.

And, as Gladys Knight shows, you can sing different viewpoints into a word at the same time. You can sing the expected and the actual. Your audience can deal with a two-tone word. No word is static in a song, as long as the singer believes what they’re singing.

By the way, the besuited gentlemen from Unit 4 + 2 are standing on the Barbican building site in London in 1965. The area was bombed to the ground in World War II

And rebuilt, ready to star as MI5 headquarters in Quantum of Solace

Brandon Flowers of The Killers says he borrowed the Unit 4 +2 Baião rhythm for I Can’t Stay. It allows him to split words like decision into clear, separate syllables, adding attention, without losing sense and then to return them to ‘normal’ pronunciation elsewhere in the song. Decision is an important word in I Can’t Stay and the borrowed Baião rhythm sets it free to do its work:

© Sing Better English 2019


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