Growing up studying Jazz, I was inculcated into the cult of the AABA form—your classic verse, verse, bridge, verse—which usually implies a structural-content-form similar to a seventh-grade/my-first-five-paragraph-essay thesis, development, counterpoint, conclusion. This is often represented melodically as well as lyrically with a key change or different melodic emphasis. Many (if not most) jazz standards follow this pattern as do many (if not most) pop songs, country songs, R&B, basically every genre of modern songs. “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Party in the USA.” Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” is a classic, no-frills AABA. The first verse sets up the conceit, the second verse develops it, then a bridge comes along and tackles the same idea from a new angle (accompanied with a kinda-key-change to the IV), and the final verse hammers the point home.
In my early songwriting years, I tended to take this form as gospel. You’ll notice on my first record, D-42, over half of all songs are AABA. (“Together” and “Goodbye” especially are super clean AABAs.) I remember trying to force bridges where they didn’t belong while writing that record (I believe there’s a lost bridge for “The One for Me”), and I was fortunate not to end up with any extraneous parts and pieces. It was also around the time of writing that record that a few friends (notably Joe, Alasdair, and Lance) introduced me to the many wonders and placed me under the ever-growing spell of the singular Jonathan Richman, my favorite* songwriter (*read: one of my favorites) and a sort of astral guide for music and life. From soft-spoken wanderings to epically lustful rankles, Jonathan’s music is many things (that I will duly cover in later installments), but one feature that pervades his winding catalog and career is directness—lyrically (“Affection”), thematically (“Twilight in Boston”), musically (“Roadrunner”), etc.
Jonathan’s forms, too, reflect this directness. His songs streamlined shapes leave no frills or distractions to get in the way of pure, unadulterated meaning. Take perhaps his most well-known song, “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar:”
“…Lesbian Bar” is about as straight as it gets, daringly so. It truly does take real chutzpa to make the chorus of a song just the title. And after a brief exposition about how the bar he was in is no fun, the rest of the song is concerned mainly with comparing how much fun the lesbian bar is with how boring the other one is. A song so simple, it’s awkward and fruitless describe. Easy to write about The Beach Boys or Bach; almost impossible to write about Jonathan Richman. His elemental magic consists of a childlike quality of openness and wonder, feelings and ideas that seem to come before words, not the Brian-Wilson-feelings that only come after too much overthinking.
One of these days, I’ll write my dissertation on “That Summer Feeling,” my favorite Jonathan Richman song and probably my favorite song of all time. But this post was only ever going to be the first of many things I will say about Jonathan, anyway.
But anyway…bridges. Listening to and loving and really digging into Jonathan’s songs helped me loosen up. I remember when I was writing “Natalie,” my new song out next Friday, I spent a day trying to write a bridge. I bet somewhere I still have one or two drafts of bridges that didn’t make it. But that song doesn’t need anything other than what it has: a simple ABAB form that keeps it on track.
After the song comes out, I’ll write something up with unused versions of the song, lost verses, choruses, bridges, etc.
AND PRE-SAVE “NATALIE” — it really helps!
As always, thank you so much for reading. Send this substack to your friends and family, to that guy you know who gets obsessed with songs, to your annoying coworker.
AND NOW (some of) YOUR QUESTIONS!
Loved reading/answering these. Comment below with more questions!
silkiana_ asks, “Do you still compose/arrange outside of your regular stuff?”
I do! I’m working on a bunch of music for films right now, more to come.
toro_fan04 asks, “How do you develop the tone for your guitar? (ex: ‘Mamma Mia’ differing from ‘Goodbye’)”
Well the fun fact about “Mamma Mia” is that it has NO REAL INSTRUMENTS. All midi-synths! Didn’t even have a keyboard with me, so it’s all programmed in. But with regards to guitar tones specifically, it’s not more complicated than me hearing what I want in my head and learning my gear well enough to execute. Sometimes when I don’t know exactly what I want I’ll fool around with effects or amps or microphones or pickup configurations etc. until I hear something special. That’s truly the long and short of it! Lots of references, too. Maybe I’ll write a post about the guitar tones for this record and the references I was drawing from.
Beans on toast WITH cheese. CRUNCHY peanut-butter. YELLOW gatorade.
See you next week,
Did you get to see any of the films this Oscar season? If so, did you have any favorites? Also, thoughts on the Nope and Everything Everywhere All At Once soundtracks? I absolutely LOVED them.
I wrote a song that ended up being like AABAB. I thought about putting a bridge in there but it’s like I said everything I wanted to say and the song is mainly for me and God and not for other people to listen to so I just left it the way that it was. Me and God like it haha