UG Articles Archive

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Power of Close Listening

Ever just sat down, closed your eyes, and just listened to music for a while?  Not listened while writing a paper, or playing games, or lol'ing with your friend on facebook chat, just listened?

I hate to admit it, but I am one of the people that tend to use music as background noise, something to drown out the silence and keep my brain occupied while I do things that are less intellectually challenging.  I play music in the background while I play video games, while I write articles, while I do the dishes at work.  Rarely do I just sit and listen to a song and do nothing else.  Last week, I had an epiphany, as if Dio himself reached down from heaven to slap me in the face and say "you're doing it wrong."

I wrote an article for Ultimate-Guitar about's "Top 50 Metal Songs of All Time" list, which included only one song written in the last 10 years.  That song, Tool's "10,000 Days (Wings for Marie pt. 2) was received with a lot of skepticism from the UG community, with many asking "why not Schism, or Lateralus?"  I'll admit I was asking similar questions, until I decided to pull up the song on my Zune ("hah hah, he has a Zune!") and read along with the lyrics while I listened.

The experience made me realize that "10,000 Days" is now my favorite Tool song.  By a mile.  It's not even close.

What makes the song great is that the music and atmosphere perfectly complement the incredibly emotional and poetic lyrics, which are among the most powerful I've ever heard.  Singer Maynard James Keenan wrote the song about his mother, Judith Marie, who had just passed away after struggling with paralysis for 27 years.  27 years is a just little more than 10,000 days, hence the song's name.  His mother was a devout Christian, something Maynard never understood and even resented (see A Perfect Circle's "Judith").  He questioned why she would believe in God, when to his eyes, God had never given her anything, while taking so much away.  In "10,000 Days," Maynard seems to give his mother's beliefs the benefit of the doubt, essentially telling her, "I hope you're right, because God owes you one for the life he gave you."

The song quietly builds from the understated introduction, the sound of a thunderstorm ever-present in the background, as Keenan's vocal delivery goes from reverent whisper as he remembers his mother's faith and virtues, to a triumphant yell as the song reaches its climax and he sings:
Ten thousand days in the fire is long enough,
You're going home...

You're the only one who can hold your head up high,
Shake your fist at the gates saying,
"I have come home now!

Fetch me the spirit, the son and the father,
Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended.

It's time now!
My time now!
Give me my
Give me my wings!"

Maybe it's not the same for you, but this passage really speaks to me.  I may rip on poetry from time to time, but this song has some of the most purely brilliant, emotionally powerful lyrics of any song I've ever listened to, and I wouldn't have even noticed them if I didn't stop whatever crap I was doing and just Listen. 

I'm sure there are many songs in your library that may have the same kind of impact for you as this one did for me.  Go find them!

Close listening homework: remember "Rapture" by Hurt?  It was a huge radio hit while I was in High School and all the rock stations had it on heavy rotation: "This next one is from a band called Hurt,  time to ROCK OUT with 93X YEAHHHH!"  Well, I challenge you to sit and just listen to the tune and contemplate its meaning.  I have deciphered what I think it's about, and, well, it's not the straightforward headbanging rockin' good-times tune I remembered from High School.  Post in the comments or on Facebook and let me know how you interpret the song, then I'll let you know what I think it's about.    

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