Do you remember the fire of passion in our hearts when we first met? There was pure magic in the air and everything felt right when we were together. The stars had aligned and everything was meant to be. But this was a long time ago.
This theme refers to the end of the romance arc, where the flame that once was begins to flicker and eventually die out, leaving just the glowing embers amidst the dead sparks of the relationship that once was.
We may drown ourselves in nostalgia, desperately hoping that things will somehow return to the way things were. Every former moment of joy becomes a pinprick of pain as we reflect on how perfect things were. We may fall into disbelief, for we were so sure that it would last forever, it was utterly unthinkable that it could one day fade away. We may be in a state of denial, pretending that everything is fine. We may not have the strength to face the reality of the situation, to admit our emptiness and to walk away, alone in this world.
Perhaps we are left with a lingering taste of loathing, a residue of regret. Perhaps we are able to find gratitude for the joy we once felt, ready to move forward whilst holding onto a treasured piece of our past.
The fact of the matter is we no longer feel the butterflies that we once felt.
Some relationships will end happily ever after, but unfortunately this is an all too common human experience and therefore a frequent source of songwriting. Can you relate to this experience? Which songs best articulate it? Where have you seen it in other art forms? How would you approach writing a song on this topic?
Songs on this theme often take the form of a bittersweet ballad recounting specific details about the good times. ‘The One That Got Away’ by Katy Perry recounts those summer nights sneaking into their parents’ liquor collections and climbing onto the roof, talking about their promising futures etc.
There are a handful of songs I have mentioned by Mike Rosenberg on this theme, with rich metaphors to capture the sentiment:
‘The Way We Were’ by Barbara Steisand is an old classic that fits perfectly, touching on “the smiles we left behind”, and the fact that these most beautiful memories can be “too painful to remember”.
Michael Jackson has a song called ‘Remember the Time’ reminiscing about past love.
Tom Waits’ ‘Martha’ is without a doubt his most beautiful song, which gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. He recounts how things were:
And those were the days of roses, poetry and prose
And, Martha, all I had was you, and all you had was me
There was no tomorrows, we’d packed away our sorrows
And we saved them for a rainy day
I’ll start with your final question: How would I approach a song with this theme. It is a difficult topic because it is one (or two) of the big three topics in songwriting that have been done so many times (love, heartbreak, and god/religion). Starting with a theme that is so pervasive can be intimidating because it is so easy to compare yourself to countless others who have written about it. So, I would approach it with caution. To say, what is a spin I could add to make it a little more interesting or unique so that I won’t feel the need to compare it or judge it by others’ masterful works.
I think the song "Elephant" by Jason Isbell does this wonderfully. It’s spin is that the two are getting together for a tryst and reminiscing about how things use to be before she dies of cancer. That is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. And that tension is what makes a song that would otherwise be cliche so interesting.
So I would start by asking what is the spin I could put on this topic. I could see something supernatural (like ghosts (that could also be a metaphor: something once physical that still lingers in longing) or vampires (something immortal, but evil lurks in it now)) or maybe a deathbed confession to a current significant other about a past love that never left. Something like that would add interest and maybe less room for internal comparison.
Then I would try to lay out some basic themes and maybe an arc of a story. After that, I would jot down as many images that come to mind and begin building a boneyard of words to cherry pick later. This is one of my primary techniques for writing, but the trick here would be to not get too comfortable with things I have heard a million times before.
I also say all of this as someone who is much more lyrically focused. I know plenty of great songs that don’t have a spin, they are cliche but the delivery and performance make them really good.
Completely! The idea behind this new area of the site is use these common themes as a starting point to dive into more and more specific sub-themes and interesting “spins” on the topic. Again, using the threading functionality, and if necessary branching off into a new topic.
Another interesting spin is a song telling why the relationship is going sour. This one is useful to get away from some of the cliches that exist when writing about a fading or lost love. A masterful execution of this is Schism by Tool. It doesn’t really tell you about the relationship (in fact, it could almost as easily be about friends or romance), but it gives you precise insight into what is wrong. Basically, the two cannot communicate. When they try, the other misinterprets the intent, and that leads ultimately to cold silence. By writing this way, it allows an exploration of the problem rather than the “old feelings”. By focusing on the problem, you can get specific which leads to some great imagery.
Really glad to be introduced to this song, it brilliantly shines the light of this theme onto such a poignant context in which it can arise, i.e getting sick. I agree there is something very heartwarming amongst the heartbreak. Getting sick could be a whole other topic of exploration, and this marriage to the dead sparks theme is a brilliant link to make, and exactly the sort of discussion I am hoping for!
I have come across Jason Isbell once before with the song ‘If We Were Vampires’. It shares commonality with ‘Elephant’ in that from looking at the title you would have no idea what it is about. He does such a good job at finding these creative angles, and generally approaches his subject matter with real elegance and beauty. I think I will do some further exploration!
Alright I got 3 bangers that are based around this topic,
First one has got to be YEBBA - My Mind | Sofar NYC - YouTube
However, her sparks did not slowly die out! They were putted out immediatly but she still longs for the love even after being so hurt. The way she sings this song is so emotional it’s palpable. The emotional impact of being betrayed, she’s unreal.
and the last one which puts a spin on the burnt out love is The Milk Carton Kids - Michigan - YouTube
A song about leaving behind something that brings you down, even though it hurts. Singing about Michigan, but could easily be about a partner. A clever way to shake up the cliche by using an entire city to replace the complexities of a person.
What a voice! And wow how it captures the desperation, disbelief, and helplessness of this abject corner of love. This is an important reminder that sometimes less is more with regard to lyrics, she simply states the facts in verse 1 and then lets us hear all that needs to be said in her voice.
An absolute classic that is a brilliant addition to this discussion, thank you. It deserves a whole topic page for itself really, but those final three lines!
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
Nice work making this connection to this topic, as you say the theme of knowing something is for the best despite it hurting is generalisable across many different contexts, making it a great thread for further exploration.
Absolute bangers indeed! We’re getting some excellent songs out on the table here and generating some interesting jumping-off points which is fantastic.