Friday, April 26, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Crowing

Back in the 90s (wow, did I just say that?) one of my favorite bands was Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Not as edgy or groundbreaking as Nirvana, not as genre-bending as Rage Against the Machine or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they nonetheless existed confidently on their own plain for a while. They were an extremely literate, mid-tempo band that paid particular attention to creating some absolutely gorgeous and unforgettable hooks. Lead singer Glen Phillips evoked easy comparisons to Jackson Browne’s bell-clear pitch and earnest delivery. And they could change it up, too—when they rocked they positively burned through the speakers (“Woodburning,” “Is It For Me,” “Fall Down”). When they went softer they had a breezy, almost angelic quality to them (“All I Want,” “Something’s Always Wrong.”) Why they didn’t last another 10 years or so is a mystery to me—they had integrity, talent and a highly accessible sound.

They take centerstage nicely today for Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday: Toad the Wet Sprocket – “Crowing”

What makes a love song work? Honesty, for one thing. Sincerity, yeah—we kinda have to believe Paul McCartney when he sings “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you, remember I’ll always be true.” If we don’t, well, it won’t be nearly as effective. 

A love song doesn’t need to be slow—witness “Layla” and “Foxey Lady” and even “I Want You.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy either. Natalie Imbruglio recorded a Jim Dandy of a love song with “Torn” and no one would ever accuse her of sounding happy. The aforementioned Jackson Browne became an veritable institution by exploring the darker sides of love. Bruce Springsteen devoted an entire album to the idea of love and marriage (Tunnel of Love) and no one will ever accuse that of being particularly gleeful. And if happiness were required in writing and singing songs of love, Elvis Costello may be standing by the road with a sign that reads “Will Express Bitterness and Resentment in Song for Food.”

It is in this universe where Toad’s  “Crowing” so easily exists. It isn’t happy, though it isn’t entirely sad. It indeed has a melancholy feel, sure, but is wrapped in such a lovely and rich melody it’s easy to get sucked in and rope-a-doped into thinking it may, in fact, have some optimism attached to it. Even though I’m not sure it does.

The song is given its soul by a simply stunning chord progression that effortlessly bounces between major and minor, creating a lush, dreamlike sound that in some ways reminds me of the breathtaking chords that open up “Ziggy Stardust.” The way those minors hit, though, lend a jarring depth to the song, as well as adding an element of foreboding tension that hangs over every note as a result.

And the words. The words are downright poetic, in the truest sense of the word, in that they focus more on feel and imagery than any particular plot or story point. The very fact that the chorus comes back to the line, “He was crowing for repair” speaks to this. What does that even mean? In the literal sense it’s hard to put your finger exactly on it. In the more ethereal sense, though, Phillips’ mournful, almost abashed reading of these lines speaks to regret and loss.

Been waiting to find
You could have been happier, given the time
If he’d make up his mind
You’d give yourself to anybody who would cross that line
And it was never a question
He was crowing for repair
You’d give him love and affection
You couldn’t keep him there

Get over regrets
You were sleeping with the angels, he was under the bed
And the more skin that you shed
The more that the air in your throat will linger when you call him your friend
And it was never a question
He was crowing for repair
You’d give him love and affection
You couldn’t keep him there

What exactly is going on here? Betrayal, certainly on an emotional level, is palpable. So is empathy…to a point. Because at the start of the second verse the narrator tells the subject to get over it. But look inside those images. Sleeping with angels. Air lingering in your throat as you search for words that may or may not be right. Shedding skin as an idea of openness, revelation. 

“Crowing” gives the listeners credit for paying attention and connecting the dots for  themselves, using image and tone rather than, really, any level of exposition to make the point. This is a staple in poetry, yet not always so in rock music.  Toad makes it work by simply sticking to the script and allowing it to unfold on its own time. Witness the bridge as a perfect example.

Staring at a cold little hand
Reading fault lines of a shell of a man
You were waiting for a word from above
Wouldn’t you know it, no answer ever did come

Glen Phillips seems to want to give us a reveal at the end – "You hoped for something that never showed up, and for that I am sorry." OK, we get that. But what? What did you hope for? We know love and affection wasn’t enough based on the words in the chorus, so what was? Or—and this very well may be the main point—is it something the narrator simply doesn’t know? Something he wishes he knew, but he just can’t seem to figure out.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the album that “Crowing” appears on is called Dulcinea, named for Don Quixote's super-idealized love of his life, the girl of his dreams who clearly doesn't exist. Or, more to the point, she does exist, just not at all as he sees her.  But he pursues her anyway, believing the beauty of even an idea this good is worth it. Like the narrator in “Crowing,” he’s chasing a specter and nothing more. 

In Toad’s version we know there are troubled waters in front of him—words and phrases like “cold little hand” and “shell of a man” (one magnificent rhyming couplet, BTW)—clearly steer us in that  direction. But whatever else is out there the singer needs to figure out for himself. And we, the listener, need to figure out for ourselves.

“Crowing” works beyond its rich chords and oblique, evocative words, because it challenges the listener to go along on the journey with it without ever showing us what's truly behind the curtain. That’s why I love the song—there is nothing at all obvious or deliberate about it. Like the fabled Dulcinea of Quixote’s dreams, we have to find it on our own.


  1. Nothing short of brilliant

  2. Why didn't they last another 10 years? They did! They're alliivvveee!! They took a bit of a hiatus, but they came out with an album in 2011, 2013, and now 2015. I've seen them live twice, recently, and they're freaking excellent.