Understanding Lyrics: Determining Theme

by criticalhit009


This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.

Determine theme

  • Is the theme explicit? What lines of the lyrics contain the theme?
  • Is the theme implicit? What lines of the lyrics suggest the theme?

Like mood, theme tends to be the seen, yet unseen force shaping a perception of a song. Themes act as overarching meanings and messages that give the work coherence. Typically, all the motifs and work of a particular piece help support an overall theme(s). Lyrics in Green Day’s song  “American Idiot” all are explicitly pointed towards a theme of rebellion against media overesaturation and dumbing down of the American consciousness, for instance. But aside from the particularly didactic or thematically explicit, implicit themes can require a bit more effort to articulate. As such, let’s focus more on implicit thematic works and turn to “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel. 

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
[I] just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

To keepin’ silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
“Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
They’ve come to take me home.”

The song itself is enigmatic; it can take a couple listens just to comprehend the swirl of imagery and prose. A theme one can pick out is about breaking free from constrictions that envelop out lives, while also illustrating Gabriel breaking free from the past of his former band, Genesis. (The latter interpretation better illuminated when you put the song in its historical context.) The song invokes rich imagery and paints the theme throughout the music, only really tipping its thematic hand with a few key phrases like “I walked right out of the machinery” to really hit the theme home. Though the song does have a narrative of leaving constrictions to be free, the song’s primary purpose is lyrical; that is, to impress upon mood and emotion. The focus upon emotion rather than narrative keeps the theme more implicit.

Themes aren’t necessarily dialectical, in easier either/or patterns of explicit or implicit. But hopefully this brief glimpse at a song gives enough of an impression in how to grasp a song’s theme.