Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Serious Contenders: Tom Petty, "Mary Jane's Last Dance"

Tom Petty has one of the most incredible Greatest Hits albums in history. A lot of great artists pad theirs out with lesser-known tracks, or singles nobody heard or cares about. But I was listening to his the whole way through the other day, and literally every song on it is incredible. He's one of those artists I rarely think about, but when I do, I realize he's been the background music to my life for a very long time. Any song on that album could be one of my "Serious Contenders" as well as a few he recorded later (I see you there, "You Don't Know How It Feels.")

I just posted about "American Girl" a few weeks ago but I was humming this one to myself, trying to remember the (relevant to my life?) lyrics, "Tired of screwing up / Tired of going down / Tired of myself / Tired of this town / " This song has a lot in common with that earlier one, in that its lyrics seem to tell a story, ostensibly about a girl who gets in with the wrong people, but in a distant, detached way so that you never really worry what the song is supposed to be about. Those carefully-chosen lyrics, combined with the solemn blues-rock stomp, put the whole story in terms you can understand without knowing you're even being told.

I don't talk a lot about lyrics on the blog. Lately I've been wondering whether, most of the time, it's even important to know what a song is about, or if it can be enough to accept that the "meaning" of a song is usually just a premise to create music. I can remember a number of people telling me last year, how much they liked Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks,"... "and then I found out it was about a school shooting." Well, the lyrics in the verses are a bit obscure on that, but the chorus does fairly-audibly (not perfectly, of course) say "gun" and "bullets." And you can decide for yourself whether it's important what that song, or this one, is even about.

But good lyrics, whether or not they "mean" anything in context, can utterly make a song. A turn of phrase or line that you like hearing can make you want to re-listen to a song that otherwise isn't as inviting. The music of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is great, but the lyrics really make the song, despite, or perhaps because, they are so sketchy in details and exact meaning. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is loaded with great descriptions and implications, but it's up to you to put them together in your head. Incidentally, this great song was recorded specifically for Petty's Greatest Hits, which was prescient.

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