Things We Like: The Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/the machines of God

16 years ago, on February 29, 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a thundering powerhouse of an album, the gargantuan and gonzo MACHINA/the machines of God.

Smashing Pumpkins Machina

It was the Mad Max: Fury Road of albums, a monumental epic that roared wildly along alt-rock’s highway, knocking everything out of its path. And when you listen to it, you half-suspect that guitarist James Iha’s guitar is genuinely shooting flames.

Doof Warrior

But we digress.

It’s a classic, although it wasn’t considered as such at the time, receiving mixed reviews and being one of their lowest selling albums at that point. Which is just wrong, because this is the ultimate Pumpkins album. It’s a massive, 15 song, 73 minute set… but oddly enough, this was the short, compromised version — band leader Billy Corgan initially intended it to be a double album, but was refused by the record company. Even in its “reduced” state, MACHINA is an extraordinary, genre-busting achievement, bursting at the seams with alternative concept rock cybermetal pop balladry. It’s a thrilling mix of delicacy and heavy distortion, driven by angst and emotion, and a whole lotta love.

Above all else, it has really great songs (all written by Corgan). MACHINA is overflowing with powerfully catchy hooks, skyscraping choruses, and deep, driving, relentless grooves that keep it all flowing. Opening track The Everlasting Gaze sets the tone, kicking things off with some gloriously fuzzed out guitars and bass and crushing drums, as Corgan tells us “you know I’m not dead”… and that’s the quiet part of the song. It soon lifts off, racing through stratospheric atmospherics as Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming transforms into a godlike thundering, while Iha’s guitar becomes a roaring furnace in front of a 100 foot Marshall stack and the whole thing achieves lightspeed transcendence.

It’s not folk music.

Somehow, the album gets better from there, jammed with huge choruses, gleaming atmospheres, and a whole bunch of kick-ass rock songs. It’s the sound of a band giving it everything they’ve got, wringing every last drop of intensity from every note, every word, every moment. Which is what was happening: it was designed to be the Pumpkins’ last album, a goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Corgan’s plan had been to reconvene the original line-up of the band one last time, and go out on a high with an album that was about a fictionalized version of the band. He re-recruited Jimmy Chamberlain, who had left the band a a few years before. Their previous album, Adore, did not feature Chamberlain: it’s a quiet, hushed affair that never unleashes itself. It’s a beautiful, slinky album, but when Chamberlain came back for MACHINA, his muscular drumming changed everything. If Adore was Black Widow, MACHINA is the Hulkbuster. The band wanted to throw everything they had at these songs. Iha would add effects pedal after effects pedal to his guitar set-up to create the monstrous roar that powers much of this album, while Chamberlain would wreak furious havoc on the drums. However, partway through recording, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky chose to leave, wrecking the band, and Corgan’s plans. The album had to be refocused and started over; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was drafted in for the live shows.

Smashing Pumpkins

The official lineup for the album release and tour: Melissa Auf der Maur, James Iha, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain

It’s a concept album — come back! — but one you can air guitar and air drum the shit out of. And, yes, it can be exhausting if listened to from start to finish — but exhausting in a good way, because the music really does consume you. Once you get past the event horizon of the pyrotechnics of the first few songs, you get pulled deeper into the intense gravitational pull and pressures of each successive track… by the end, as you fall through the glimmering soundscapes of With Every Light, the mesmerizing interstellar beauty of Blue Skies Bring Tears and the gleaming alternative pop of Age Of Innocence, you will almost certainly feel like you’re Matthew McConaughey in fifth-dimensional space. But that’s a good thing! Never has something so radio-friendly been so uncompromising in its vision. The CD booklet contains eerie, haunting artwork like the below, full of the dreams and nightmares of Corgan’s original vision of this as a “musical theater” piece based around a rock star called Zero (which had transformed by the time the album was done to Glass, and his band The Machines Of God).

MACHINA CD booklet

It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and it refuses to yield in its vision. MACHINA is full of emotional storytelling through almost mythically outsized songs. It marked the end of the 90s; luckily, it did not mark the end of Corgan’s ever-revolving collective. It was a forward-looking record, gazing unflinchingly at a glaringly bright future horizon that it raced towards. 16 years on, it stands as a testament to believing in your creativity, and even more importantly, seeing your creativity through, no matter what.

If you have an idea, make it your own… and make sure you actually make it.

 

Finding inspiration

Sometimes reading about the craft of music and listening to the best of the art form is enough to spark the creative flame of songwriting. Other times, you find the beat and the words flow as if they were forged together. Then there are those moments no writer wants to think about. When the words just aren’t there. You can sense them in the distance, but they won’t venture close enough to grab. Like your cat when it’s time to go to the vet.

Call it what you will, writer’s block, being creatively stymied, Twitter time, Hell… whatever you name it, there is only one cure for it.

Write.

Just write.

Play through the pain. Even if it’s crap, write until it’s not. Obviously, this is much easier to say than do. Nothing is as daunting as a blank page, or a cursor slowly flashing in a way that is surely mocking you, like a slow clap for your lack of words. Thanks, cursor. But inspiration is a tricky thing. It comes in all sorts of forms, from a picture to a phrase to a feeling, and you have to be open to catch it before it passes by.

Cursor

The tyranny of the blinking cursor. Sarcastic attitude very much pictured.

While songwriting has to speak the truth, it doesn’t have to be pure autobiography. It can be, sure — Taylor Swift has brilliantly tapped the resource of her broken heart and connected with millions — but you don’t have to use your romantic crashes and burns to create a connectable song. It’s not a bad thing, as TayTay and Adele would agree, but it’s not the only way. You don’t have to translate the ins and outs of your journal into verses and choruses, but you do have to invoke your feelings: Loyalty. Trust. Love. Betrayal. Shame. Hate. Jealousy…

In a writing class many years ago, a fellow student read their work out loud. It was a short story about fickle love. It was brutal to listen to. The honesty of how it feels to be in the warm glow of love, and the soul-crushing shadow that steals  your soul when it’s taken away, hit a nerve with everyone who heard it. After the piece was done, everyone asked the author if he was okay — assuming he was in Adele proportions of heartbreak. Turns out he was fine… he wrote the story about his cat.

Smug cat

Smug bastard.

You don’t have to bungee jump off a bridge to convey the fear of falling and the relief of being saved at the last moment. We’ve all been there in some way or other, that train you thought you missed, that time you tripped and almost fell but steadied yourself in time. Use those feelings and create a story for them. Use whatever is around you and write about it. And keep writing until you hear your story’s beats.

 

Writing songs: make us feel it

Every writer knows that if you want to write a novel, you have to read a lot of books. And not just in your genre — you have to venture into all of the categories of your kindle. It’s the same for songwriting. In order to understand the craft of putting a song together, you first need to expose yourself to as much music as you can. Keep listening until you can hear the musical and lyrical structures of the nearly countless variations of songwriting out there. And then listen some more.

Whether it’s pop, which currently tends to have simpler, more repetitive lyrics over intense production, or rap, which usually focuses on telling a story over production-heavy loops and beats, or country, which almost entirely tells stories via vivid imagery and hooks, sometimes with a stripped-down sound, sometimes with arena-ready production gloss, you’ll learn the many nuances of songwriting from all of them. All kinds of styles are calling to you; let them in.

Listen then write

As you jump out of the For You section of your streaming service, you’ll notice almost all music shares one objective: emotion. Every song wants you to feel something. And to do that, they tell a story, whether it’s in one chorus chanted over and over again, or in an epic poem type style that provides you with characters, locations, events and even a timeline.

We’ve grabbed some of our favorite songs that tell stories in an original way, with inventive use of rhymes, imagery and phrasing. Add them to your playlist:

Chris Stapleton, “Whiskey and You” (written by Stapleton with Lee Thomas Miller). The opening line says it all: “There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring, and it’s empty so I don’t feel a thing.” You have the whole story right there — that’s economy of imagery and phrasing. The rest of the song uses the differences between “whiskey and you” to say how the singer feels about his ex. It’s concise, hyper-effective storytelling using whiskey as the vehicle to attack his true feelings.

Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl” (written by Musgraves with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird). Musgraves takes an insult screamed at her by another girl’s mom when she was a kid, and turns it into this statement of intent and identity. The phrase itself is evocative and catchy, and she weaves it into a stream of memories as she doubles down on where she’s from (“it don’t matter where I’m going, I still call my hometown home”).

Eminem, “Stan” (written by Eminem, Dido and Paul Harmon). One of the greatest examples of storytelling in rap, or any genre, this bleak but brilliant track is narrated by Eminem as Stan, one of Eminem’s biggest fans. It details Stan’s descent from happy fanboying to homicidal rage as his idol seemingly ignores all his attempts to get in contact. At the end, Eminem raps as himself again. The track is full of psychological and emotional moments that vividly illustrate Stan’s journey — Stan rationalizing that Eminem probably didn’t get his letters because his handwriting is too sloppy, Eminem ignoring Stan and his little brother when they were waiting in the cold outside one of his concerts, Stan laying out how he and Eminem are the same, even as Stan’s rage begins to creep into his phrasing more and more. It’s a masterpiece of sharp, memorable imagery used to convey a complex series of emotions, and to track a psychological breakdown.

Jessica Roadcap, “Always Find Me” (written by Roadcap, David Dorn and Rose Falcon). Roadcap uses a sparkling flow of imagery to detail her failed attempts to escape a memory: a fast car, an ocean, running, hiding, breaking free, Vegas, one night stands, ghosts… but always ending up realizing, “your memory always finds me.” This is how you take a hugely relatable feeling (wanting to forget the love of someone who’s gone) and make it instantly evocative to the listener using well-chosen imagery.

Beyoncé, “Single Ladies” (written by Beyoncé, The-Dream, Kuk and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart). This falls into the category of anthemic statement of intent, with its heavily repeated call to “all the single ladies” over a stuttering, relentless beat. It makes its point in pointed fashion, with its poetic “you had your turn, and now you’re gonna learn, what it feels like to miss me,” and its instantly iconic, “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” which distills the meaning of the entire song into one bladed phrase.

Keith Urban and Eric Church, “Raise ’em Up” (written by Tim Douglas, Jaren Johnston and Jeffrey Steele).  That title is used in a multitude of ways that get ever more profound: raising your glass in a toast, your hands in prayer, your tear-filled eyes up to the sky, your kids as they grow up. It’s a beautiful song that transcends that simple phrase by layering on the meanings.

Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning” (written by the Wolf). A classic, old-time blues, this uses a ruthlessly stripped-back image to drive the song: the sparks coming out of the smokestack of a train rushing past into the night (“smokestack lightning, shining just like gold…”). That becomes symbolic of the relationship that the character is losing (“where did you sleep last night… why don’t you hear me crying…”). Even musically, the song sits in one hypnotic chord throughout as the image is used again and again, making this in some ways a precursor to modern pop (we’ll take that Pulitzer now).

Whatever genre you listen to, the lessons of the best are clear: choose unusual imagery that hooks you in and tells you a story in its own right; play with words and phrases, layering in more than one meaning to give a song more depth; give your words a dynamic rhythm that sticks in our minds; but above all, keep it authentic, keep it true, keep it relatable, keep it real.

Make us feel it.

 

 

Books about songwriting

Sometimes putting a song together is easy — like when you beatbox to your pets as you put out their food. (Don’t worry, we don’t judge and they don’t judge… unless they’re cats, because, you now… cats.)

But if you want to put something together that will please more than Mr. Wooferson’s floppy ears, a little research is recommended. Songwriting is an art and a science, and you can study it just like any other art form. Anytime you’re reading about writing (songs, or novels, or scripts), you’re learning and getting inspired. You can’t stop it; your brain loves this stuff!

Here are three books that we’ve found particularly useful and inspiring when it comes to country music, but to be honest, most of what you’ll find here could apply to any kind of musical storytelling.

First up, we have Writing Better Lyrics, by Pat Pattison.

Writing Better Lyrics

This is a sharp, insightful, unflinching, not-taking-any-of-your-BS look at writing lyrics. It’s jammed with great perspectives and exercises to help you get out of the familiar and easy pattern, and find genuine and fresh inspiration. Whatever level you’re at, you’ll find something here that will jolt your imagination. It’ll get you thinking about lyrics, choruses, verses, the flow, and even words, in a different light. Whatever genre you write in, this book will have something for you. If you’re struggling through writers’ block, try one of Pattison’s exercises — you’ll be writing a new song before you know it.

Next up, Nashville Songwriter, by Jake Brown.

Nashville Songwriter

This is a fascinating series of interviews with some of Nashville’s finest and most storied songwriters, talking about how they wrote some of their biggest songs. If you want to learn about the process of songwriting, you go to the source: Merle Haggard, Ashley Gorley, Kelley Lovelace, Chris DuBois, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, John Rich, Sonny Curtis, and many others. They each talk about the moment of inspiration for one or more of their hits, the way their initial idea was sketched out into the bare bones of a verse or two, before finding the chorus, then re-finding it with new inspiration, and how they got through to the final hit version. These are the people doing the work, talking about how they do the work. Even if you’ve never heard of some of the writers or songs, you’ll learn something about the many different ways that songs come into being.

Lastly, and more specifically focused on Nashville, is If You’ve Got A Dream, I’ve Got A Plan, with the epic subtitle How to get your songs heard by music industry professionals and get your foot inside a closed-door business. Damn!

Dream

It’s by the aforementioned Kelley Lovelace, who has cowritten many of Brad Paisley’s hits. It’s over ten years old now, but its core principles remain true. Lovelace looks at the business of writing songs in Nashville (and outside if you can’t move there) from top to bottom, giving useful insights into the mechanics of the country music industry, including writing, cowriting, pitching, open mic, royalties, and much else. Lovelace knows the industry from the inside out, and writes in an engaging, accessible and inspiring way.

These are just three — there are whole libraries of books about songwriting, as well as, of course, the internet. You can find countless interviews with songwriters recounting their moments of inspiration and the detailed process of how they shaped their song. Taste Of Country has a great series called Lyrics Uncovered on its site. This installment focuses on how Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote Musgrave’s hit Biscuits. Check it out, then take a look through their archives.

What it all comes down to is this: keep exploring. That’s the best way to grow and to stay inspired, which means you won’t only be impressing Mr. Wooferson, you’ll also be ready when the muse comes knocking on your door.

Songwriting and storytelling

We’ve focused a lot on movies and novels in previous posts, but there’s another kind of storytelling that drives a lot of what we do: songwriting.

Writing a song

We love all kinds of music, whether it’s the beautiful inventive craziness of pop, the gritty edge of rap, the straight-up epic-ness of soul, or the gorgeous storytelling and soul-baring of country music. The through-line for us is songs that tell us stories, whether it’s a verse by verse evolution of things happening, or the evocation of an emotional moment in time. That kind of songwriting is a very precise form of storytelling, even more so than a short story, which is one of the most precision-based ways to get a story across, given the lack of time and space. Characters, situations, emotions, arcs, set-ups and pay-offs all need to happen immediately. Just as with short stories, there’s no runway with a song; you need a vertical take-off for the tale you’re telling. You have to grip the listener from the start with vivid, specific imagery that resonates. You need to use whatever tools you can to grab us and hold us close. Clever analogies, innovative wordplay, a flow; there’s a lot more in common with rap and country than you’d think.

FGL and Nelly

Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, rapping and… country-ing?

For us, the nexus of this kind of songwriting is Nashville. Dive deep into country music, and you’ll find everything you need to know about songwriting. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift, who has spent the last 15 months dominating the world with the epic, glossy, futuristic, confessional pop of the 1989 album and tour, learned how to get there by writing country songs.

Taylor Swift

Great country songwriters transport you from the first line, and grip you until the last (and beyond): Eric Church, Mark Irwin, Shane McAnally, Kelley Lovelace, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Roadcap, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, Chris Dubois… They tell heartfelt, vivid tales, wrapped up in hooks and melodies. Here are two examples of how to tell a story through verses and choruses (listen to the way these songs are constructed, the way they phrase the things they say, the way imagery is set-up and paid-off):

Miranda Lambert, “Automatic” (written by Lambert with Natalie Henby and Nicolle Galyon). This digs deep into a nostalgic vibe, and does so by brilliantly layering meaning upon meaning on the word ‘automatic.’ The theme of the song is yearning for a time when you had to work for what you got, whereas now everything’s just automatic. Analogies flow fast and smartly, as do memories of taking the long way around (ironically, given the speed with which they poetically hit the theme). Driving stick, taking photos (“the kind you gotta shake”), writing letters… very specific experiences become universal as Lambert reaches out for a time “back before everything became automatic.”

Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”, (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Brad Warren). Irwin and his co-writers do something very smart here, taking the chorus of a song that the character is listening to on the radio, and making it the chorus of the song itself. It adds another dimension to this story of someone driving angrily away from a row with their loved one, which is already made unusual by being from the POV of the person being driven away from. It’s a flawless example of how to take a story, and tell it in a fresh way, from a fresh angle. Irwin and co.’s approach gives the song life and heart; using the highway as the anchor for the song (“the highway won’t dry your tears, but I will… the highway don’t care, but I do”) makes it grab you. It’s not just someone telling you they care; it’s poetically constructed, which gives it more impact.

Smart analogies, vivid imagery, clever, complex and concise phrasing and construction: these themes reverberate through a good story and make for great music. It sounds analytical, and maybe even cold, but all this is the foundation on which beautiful, rich, heartfelt and soulful art is made.