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Ah, another musing on songs that touch me and trigger many repeat listens.

Two pieces currently have my musical attention. Both are collaborations, but in very different ways. One is pure lyrical genius, with flawless musical performances and a beautiful arrangement all leading to a powerful, emotional story. The other is an offering from a diverse group of artists intent of bringing hope and encouragement to a struggling world.


Dustland, an older song by The Killers, is reinvigorated in a stunning collaboration with Bruce Springsteen. This combination is perfect in so many ways. I never dug into the Killers catalog, but always enjoyed their songs when one popped up on my music radar. Since finding this gem, I have gone a bit deeper into their music and have become a great admirer, particularly of the lyrical skills of Brandon Flowers. The song “Quiet Town” is devastatingly American – full of beautiful and painful images resonant to anyone who has looked honestly at the devastation of addiction and foolish death of our younger selves.

Back to Dustland. The opening lyric by Brandon Flowers immediately stands alongside my favorite Springsteen opening from Thunder Road.

 DustlandThunder Road
A dustland fairytale beginning
 Or just another white trash County kiss
 In Sixty-one, Long brown hair and foolish eyes
 He looked just like you’d want him to
 Some kind of slick chrome American prince
 A blue jean serenade
 Moon River what’d you do to me
 But I don’t believe you
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
 Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
 Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
 Hey that’s me and I want you only
 Don’t turn me home again
 I just can’t face myself alone again

Both opening lyrics are cinematic, with song references that evoke wistfulness and romance (Moon River) and the ache of loneliness and helplessness (Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely.) Instrumentation is spare, leaving the lyrics to do the heavy lifting. Flowers takes the opening lines, setting the scene for the bittersweet story. It took a few passes for me to grasp the depth and complexity and realize, after a bit of research, that he was telling the story of his parents and, more poignantly, his mother’s impending passing. Mister Springsteen enters, in the voice of an older man – the father, perhaps? Or the older son, watching the ravages of illness stripping away everything. “Saw Cinderella in a party dress, but she was looking for a nightgown. Saw the Devil wrapping up his hands, he’s getting ready for the showdown.” Death? The final fight over her soul? So many potential ways to read that. The real beauty is in the ragged, slightly cracking, quavering vocal, high in Springsteen’s register, raw emotion. The drummer counts four, the tempo shifts, and the piece accelerates rhythmically and lyrically. A quartet of strings helps drive the arrangement. A powerful bassline compels the track from below, and guitars become more emphatic, adding percussive color. The relentless drummer is not letting anyone off the hook. The vocals are beautiful, trading between the two singers, then coming together in ragged unison, and it all just leaves me waiting for the release. Flowers voice quivers a bit, as he touches his heart and pleads,

“Now Cinderella don’t you go to sleep
It’s such a bitter form of refuge
Ah, don’t you know the kingdom’s under siege
And everybody needs you.”

And then, guitar playing a pensive, lonely finish.

It leaves me emotionally exhausted and artistically full. 

Running Out Of Tomorrows

The second song is an entirely different animal. Running Out Of Tomorrows, written by my friend and former colleague Ed Daniels, is a collaboration in the truest sense. Ed is part of a collective of musical artists aptly named “Collaborations.” The group of writers, singers, and players come together with a palette of styles and inspirations that range from pure pop to country, with flecks of R&B, Soul, show tunes, and singer-songwriter influences.

My first listen had me thinking of the musicals “Hair” and “Godspell.” Kind of bouncy, quite earnest. A few more listens revealed the true nature of the collaboration, with no influence left unturned.

It has components I usually find off-putting, from cliché lyrics to riffs borrowed from Van Morrison to Gloria Gaynor. And despite all of the things that make me go “AAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!” I listen to it over and over. Why? Because it takes all of those things and delivers an important message in a pure pop package.

Like its music style, the song’s message is a bit of everything. Climate change, racial and economic injustice, political divisions, and a society that struggles with fairness paper every phrase and verse. Many of the lyrics are couplets of common idioms, exhortations that if we work together – but, dammit, they are so honest and earnest that many sins are forgiven.

The song starts with an acapella gospel choir singing the chorus. Great tone, beautiful, tight harmonies, and smooth, effortless singing bring the listener to the front door of the song.

A short, spanky guitar intro blends with smooth, pretty bass playing, adding some needed consistency. Great horns fill the spaces nicely, not too much or too little. Similarly, the strings add color and smoothness that help sand off some jarring vocal goings-on. 

There are three primary vocalists – the ballsy, full-force female, the reedy, slender-voiced male, and the earnest, smooth-toned second female singer. When the first female sings the lyric “Everyone’s angry,” she sounds angry. The male singer slides all around his melodies. They seem to be competing soloists rather than a team blending together to deliver the song’s message. And that’s okay! It worked for “We Are The World,” and it works for “Running Out Of Tomorrows.”

So, for me, the true magic of Running Out Of Tomorrows is taking things I usually dislike, putting them all in one song, and turning out a piece that inspires, entertains, and takes its message to heart. 

Good on Ed, who donates the proceeds from the song to local charities. And good on the Collaborations team, including the artists, musicians, arrangers, and producers who work together to support individual and collective creativity.

Bonus Track

Tommy Emanuel and Mike Dawes. Two master guitarists blending together to deliver a beautiful acoustic performance of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Each part stands alone, both parts together equal perfect, generous collaboration. You can hear them listening, supporting and appreciating each other’s contribution. Dawes passing chord at :45 seconds is delicious, and Emanuel’s smile sums it all up. This piece deserves some headphone time, just to hear all the nuance and skill of each player, from the slap and rattle of the bass strings on Dawes dropped tuning, to the almost- violinist vibrato of Emanuel’s single-line work. Beauty abounds.

And on the lighter side…
There is no doubt in my mind that collaboration is an ugly business. No wonder the word fell into disrepute during the second world war.

From “They’re Playing Our Song” book by Neil Simon, Music and Lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager.