“Write about what you know” is a phrase you’ve probably heard many times. The thing with these recycled quotes people parrot out is that sometimes, well, they don’t actually mean anything do they? I mean, seriously, no one wants to hear a song about what you really know. Let me put it this another way – let’s say you’re a college student, for example. No one really wants to hear a song about getting wasted, eating pizza and trying to get girls to take their clothes o....oh no, I apologise, I’m wrong. They actually do. It’s called ‘I Love College’ by Asher Roth.
One time ‘writing about what you know’ usually does work though is when you’re talking about places. Towns, cities, countries. They evoke memories and emotions readily and quite often, you don’t even have to have been there yourself.
1. Whiskeytown – Jacksonville Skyline
I’ve never been to Jacksonville. I don’t even want to go to Jacksonville. I know far too many good songs about Jacksonville to go there and have my preconceptions about the place and feelings about said songs shattered to a million pieces. Ryan Adams for one knows Jacksonville a lot better than I do and has written several songs (Hell, it even features in one of his album titles) about the place but none come close to ‘Jacksonville Skyline’. I’ve listened to this song so many times that I can tell you there’s a mistake after 19 seconds and you can hear a little bounce of a guitar string. Listen out for it if you’re that way inclined. I’ve grown to love that mistake and I swear there’s some sort of teenage quote about imperfections making things perfect that I could use here if I was a Goo Goo Dolls fan or something like that.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. “You looked at the Nebraska tracklist for a place related song title and you didn’t choose ‘Atlantic City’?!” Yeah, that’s exactly right punk. Now, I love ‘Atlantic City’, of course I do, but ’Nebraska’ sets up and starts off one of the most remarkable albums I’ve ever heard. Desolate, eerie, haunting and desperate. No, I’m not talking about my flat for once, I’m talking about an album Bruce released as the follow up to the ‘The River’ which, if you’re not aware, went platinum five times. Man’s got some big old balls, you’ve gotta give him that at least.
Alameda is a street in Los Angeles that I’ve never visited so this bittersweet microcosm of all Elliott Smith is about can be fairly included in this wonderful list. A beautifully balanced song with one of those melodies that is so good you can’t help but think that when Elliott died, he took a gift with him that can’t be replicated by anyone else on our little planet.
This song also happens to feature one of Elliott’s most quoted and famous lines ‘Nobody broke your heart/you broke your own cos you can’t finish what you start’ which might be a reference to someone who has a heart attack whilst attempting to eat one of those world record sized steaks but then again, it also might not.
If I make a joke about soft cheese in this write up then punch me in the face. This song was the product of Young being asked to write something for the film of the same name that starred Tom Hanks playing a gay lawyer that is unfairly dismissed for having AIDS. I would say the song is a little more cheery than that brief film synopsis but it isn’t. Put it this way, I can’t listen to it in public because it makes me get all emotional and before you know it well whaddaya know, I’m crying in the street and everyone is laughing at me.
Okay, okay. I admit. This one is a cheat. I actually have been to Memphis so I probably shouldn’t include this one. It was absolutely awesome by the way. If you want to know what it’s like then think about the town you live in. Now think about it doused it in whiskey and multiplied by Elvis. It’s kinda like that. This song is classic The Hold Steady – massive chorus, horns, the word ‘bar’ is mentioned at some point. Plus ten points for the line ‘in bar light she looked alright/in daylight she looked desperate’ too.