Meaning in Songs

I’ve heard the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros twice in the last 2 weeks, both times showing up in one of my Spotify Daily Mixes.  It got me thinking about meaning in songs, because “Home” holds a special meaning to me.

Intended vs Derived Meaning 

I’ve written before about how I sometimes have trouble identifying with music; specifically because I don’t focus on the lyrics.  So a lot of the time, I miss out on the intended meaning of a song.  Even then, sometimes I’m a little obtuse when it comes to metaphors in songs and I get surprised at the “real” meanings.

So most of the time, I put more importance into the derived meaning of songs.  What I mean by that is the feelings and thoughts I associate with that particular music.  For some things – like The Barenaked Ladies’ “Maroon” or Our Lady Peace’s “Spiritual Machines” – I associate them with a particular time in my life (high school).  They bring back some memories of when I first listened to the albums and songs, but I don’t really find a deeper “meaning” to them.

But then there’s a seemingly simple song like “Home”, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (released in 2010 I beileve).


I call it simple but it works just fine for me.  I can’t remember when I first heard this song, but I do know that it hasn’t always held a significant meaning for me.  The main lyric of the chorus says it all about the song:

Home is wherever I’m with you.

I always liked it because the beat is great and the vocals are fun and light.  But two years ago, my wife took a job in another city; for a year and a half we lived apart.  For the first year or so, we kept our house we were renting.  It made sense – the job was at the time just on contract.  Then when her job turned permanent, it didn’t make sense anymore to keep the house, and we moved out, marking the time until I could figure out how to move my job to be with her.

In the end, it all worked out – but in that period of time that we were apart, I listened to this song a lot.  Even when I was still in our house, I didn’t feel like I was at home.  It was that point that the song started to mean a lot more to me than being a catchy pop tune that I really liked.

So now whenever it comes on at random, I try to take some time to just listen to the song.

For me I think the derived meaning of songs is much more important than the intended meaning.  I’m sure that artists are always thinking about the meaning in their music, and that’s good, but just like writing, being able to put your own spin on a song when you hear is what makes it a more personal experience.

Yeah, sure, I always have time for songs you just crank up the volume for when you drive.  But when I can infer a deeper meaning in songs, it makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

Gord Downie’s Secret Path

Secret Path Album Cover

Secret Path is an adult alternative album from Gord Downie (lead singer of The Tragically Hip), released in October 2016.  It was released with an accompanying graphic novel, as well as an animated made-for-TV film that aired on CBC in the same month.  You can read more about the production background of the album on Wikipedia.

Secret Path tells the story of an Anishnaabe boy named Chanie Wenjack, from Marten Falls First Nation, who died in 1966 while trying to return home.  He was escaping from an Indian Residential School.  All of the proceeds from this album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation project.

* – Note – the above paragraph was paraphrased slightly and partially copied verbatim from the Wikipedia article I linked to.

As a preface to this review, I want to say that I’m not a “strong” music reviewer.  When it comes to music, I don’t dive deep.  I know what sounds I like, and occasionally lyrics stand out to me.  Usually when I listen to an album, I don’t really look into the details about it beforehand.

However going into Secret Path, I was at least peripherally aware of the subject matter.  I knew that it dealt with an aboriginal boy who died in the 1960s, but didn’t really explore it much further than that.  It was always one of those “Oh I’d like to listen / read that, but maybe later” kind of things.

That really influenced my listening to this album.  I tried to focus on the lyrics when I listened to the album, but personally I have a hard time doing that.  For me, music is more about the overall sound and like I said, I don’t normally pinpoint on what’s being said (with a few exceptions here and there).

Knowing the subject matter, the album gave me a distinct atmospheric feeling.  Overall, the album gave me a feeling of being alone.  The first couple of tracks start out on a bit of a positive note – Chanie sets out to escape the residential school, and looking forward to going home.  But the rest of the album gradually descends into a gloomy tone, as Chanie faces increasing hardships.

Most of the instruments on the album are guitar and piano.  I think what really helps create this mental image is Downie’s voice, which is best described on this album as strained at times and haunting.  Everything fits together so well to tell this story.

In a way though, I think I should have listened to this album while reading the accompanying graphic novel.  I definitely will still pick it up and read it, but I think it would have helped me even more in understanding what was going on in the music.

Still, the album is technically very well done.  And I think that it does exactly what it sets out to do: tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and his ill-fated journey home.  You’re not going to hear these songs on the radio, and that’s OK.  That’s not what this is meant to be.  In one sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it might not get widespread mainstream attention (though I contend that since its release, it’s received a LOT of mainstream reviews, so it has received attention); but on the other hand, I appreciate that this project wasn’t undertaken with commercial success as the first thought.

I read a Pitchfork review of the album that Downie was approached by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew to record an album, and that Downie didn’t have any material – but he was writing about Chanie.  I don’t know why, but I get the idea of this tragedy nagging away at Gord Downie until he could get it out to the world.

I definitely recommend listening to the album, and I hope you follow my example by picking up the graphic novel and read that, too.

The 20th Anniversary of Our Lady Peace – Clumsy

20 years ago Monday, Our Lady Peace released Clumsy.  Speaking without doing any research or looking up basic data, I’m pretty sure this was their most popular album, and definitely the biggest fan favourite.  Personally, I prefer Spiritual Machines – but I have a place for Clumsy for sure.

I would have been 12 years old when it was released, turning 13 in March of the same year.  I remember being vaguely familiar with Our Lady Peace, hearing about them briefly in some band feature vignette on YTV.  Rock music in general wasn’t really on my radar in 1997, but I think it was my brother that suggested I select this album from one of those mail order CD catalogs that were big in the 90s.

This was one of the albums that transitioned me to a predilection toward rock music.  Still more pop-oriented, as I think in the same year I also picked up John Mellencamp’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to say about it other than reflecting on my life when it was released.  I still listen to this album from time to time, and it holds up really well.  If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s pretty much available everywhere for purchase online or streaming, so you have no excuse.