Blue on Black: Musing on the Songwriting Process

Blue on Black: Musing on the Songwriting Process

I have a confession that I suspect will offend a sizeable portion of my audience:

I never really liked Five Finger Death Punch.

I should be clear: I love the sound of the band. Mostly, I really just love the sound of Ivan Moody’s divine voice (Zoltan is a God unto himself, but that kind of shredding is a little heavy for my taste). He brings the same hyper-masculine energy to his music that Bad Wolves brought to The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and that Disturbed brought to Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence.”

But fitting with the previous examples, I only can really handle FFDP when they’re doing covers. Everything else — most of what they write for themselves — feels somehow just a little too… (pardon the phrase) ham-fisted.

I got off on the wrong (positive) foot with the band because I was introduced to them via the song “Bad Company,” originally by Bad Company. The first time I heard it, I really liked it. I didn’t know it was a cover. I thought it was them.

So when I heard the song “Blue on Black” for the first time a few years ago, I was surprised to find that I actually liked it.

Except it turns out that Blue on Black is also a cover. It was released back in 1997 by Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

This discovery paralleled a similar experience from 2016, when Justin Bieber released “Love Yourself.” There had not been a single thing I heard from or about Bieber that I had enjoyed up to that point, but “Love Yourself” was actually good. While not a cover, I learned later — after a brief musical identity crisis — that in fact the song had been written by Ed Sheeran. The world made sense again.

But all of this is to say that the songwriting makes a difference. A good song is discernible from a bad one, and no amount of good musical technique and vocal-range and post-production editing can truly compensate for bad writing. If Bob Dylan taught us anything, its that you can get away with some remarkable musical shortcomings if only you can write well.

But what makes good musical writing?

I’ve written before about some clever lyrics, like Tool’s “The Pot,” but there’s nothing particularly clever about “Blue on Black.” In fact, it’s pleasantly simple. But it isn’t just that the words are simple; the actual composition itself seemed to have no specific external inspiration at all:

We wrote that when we were down in New Orleans – me, Mark and Tia. I had the music, and Mark and I were just rolling with the music and tried to develop things up. Tia came up with this idea based on a shirt that I was wearing that was blue and black. She noticed the two colors that were dominant on my shirt, and if you mix those two colors together, black consumes the blue. It doesn’t amount to anything if you put the two together: You still have one color, instead of creating a new color.

So she built on that idea, and it became this really deep song. It’s really up to the listener to determine how they apply it. So many people have applied it to a death in the family, an abusive relationship, a broken relationship, or whatever. There are so many different ways. That’s what’s beautiful about music and lyrics is trying to write a song that the listener can apply to their own experience in whatever way seems fit. And that’s one of those songs.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd, August 15, 2017, Songfacts

The song was written with indirect inspiration from a shirt pattern.

Does this make the song shallow?

The second quoted paragraph of Kenny’s interview says something that always used to annoy me about good musical artists; they’d say their lyrics mean “whatever you want them to mean.” I hated that. But perhaps I was interpreting the nature of good music in the wrong way…

What if songs weren’t intended to convey a particular meaning, but a particular emotional-musical texture?

This is the sense in which Nietzsche advocated music, and heavily criticized music which attempted to make itself consciously understood:

The truly Dionysean music presents itself to us as such a general mirror of the universal will: the conspicuous event which is refracted in this mirror expands at once for our consciousness to the copy of an eternal truth. Conversely, such a conspicious event is at once divested of every mythical character by the tone-painting of the New Dithyramb; music has here become a wretched copy of the phenomenon, and therefore infinitely poorer than the phenomenon itself: through which poverty it still further reduces even the phenomenon for our consciousness, so that now, for instance, a musically imitated battle of this sort exhausts itself in marches, signal-sounds, etc., and our imagination is arrested precisely by these superficialities. Tone-painting is therefore in every respect the counterpart of true music with its mythopoeic power: through it the phenomenon, poor in itself, is made still poorer, while through an isolated Dionysian music the phenomenon is evolved and expanded into a picture of the world…

The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche

Esoteric Greek symbolism aside, the idea is that the sound of well-written music conveys a feeling more directly than coherent lyrics do. This music can be so powerful that it is in fact world-creating; it shows us — perhaps even carries us — into new subtle emotions and psychic landscapes in a way which words can only point to, indirectly. Lyrics which are too clever (or too audible) might actually take away from this effect. But well-written lyrics seem to have the power to layer feeling onto the song without overburdening it with meaning.

For the young, philosophically-inclined intellectual such as myself (several years ago), ambiguity or complete disregard for meaning seemed like a cardinal sin. But for the artist, meaning might be secondary — or worse — to what actually makes art great, and that is what is expressed beneath the level of meaning, in the texture of the medium and the emotion conveyed through combination of texture and medium.

The lyrics of “Blue on Black” don’t seem to have a clear meaning, but they do have a texture which builds upon the sound of the song itself:

Blue on black
Tears on a river
Push on a shove
It don’t mean much
Joker on jack
Match on a fire
Cold on ice
A dead man’s touch

Whisper on a scream
Never changed a thing
Doesn’t bring you back
It’s like blue on black

Just what you’d expect from a song inspired by a shirt.

But somehow — perhaps — better for it.

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