the perfect song

February 9th, 2012

I started this blog post a few months ago. I never posted it. But now with the Grammy’s coming up and my draft not feeling so hideous, it feels germane.


I have been thinking a lot about the perfect song in the last few months as I’ve been working on a draft of my very imperfect novel.

It’s partly because I have been having an enduring love affair with Mumford & Sons Sigh No More album since I first heard it almost a year ago. It contains an embarrassing number of perfect songs (and I’ll get to my definition of perfect in a minute). And because I came late to Adele’s 21, which contains one perfect song. And also because of an ongoing dinner-table conversation my husband and I have about musical artists who will release one incredible album, only to follow it up with a dud. (Yes, this is what we talk about over dinner. Now you know where Adam comes from.)

We argue about why this is. What is with the follow-up slump? Do bands use up all their inspiration? Do they choke? Do they get so much attention from the perfect song/album that bigtime producers come in and muck around with what was a perfectly simple recipe? Or is it that the perfectly good recipe worked for one album, but not the next? Or perhaps maybe the perfect record/song was a product of alchemical serendipity that is never to be repeated?

I understand that a perfect song is subjective but to me, a perfect song is a lot like Mumford & Son’s “Sigh No More” or “The Cave.” Or Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Or some of the other songs I’ve put on the list below. A song that starts out with some kind of riff or rhythm that catches your attention straight away, gets your toes tapping. Then it starts to build, bringing in added instrumentation or vocals that create or sort of maelstrom effect, so that the next thing you know, you’re into the song in both a physical and emotional way. This is all happening on the first or second listen—long before you pay attention to the lyrics, which are subtle or profound or just lovely. Then the music builds and builds and you feel it build in you so that your emotions build with it until you have a sort of crescendo or catharsis or dare I say it? climax with the music itself. When I hear a perfect song when I’m running, I will sometimes feel like I have wings. A perfect song makes me feel like I can fly. (And no, sorry, R. Kelly,  not yours).

What I want to know about the perfect song is that the ingredients, seeming so obvious to me—the girl who can play rudimentary chords on a guitar but that’s about it—are they obvious to every musician? Do they know that the perfect song is out there but just can’t quite get it? Do they think they’ve got it? Do they give up? Do time constraints get in the way? Does creativity run out? Or do they think they’ve written the perfect song and I just happen to disagree?

For my husband, these musings are philosophical and aesthetic. For me, they are a bit more grounded in the real life. Like every writer I know, I’m trying to write the perfect song.  I want every book I write to make my readers feel like they can fly. Which, you know, is a pretty tall fucking order. I might as well wish for world peace while I’m at it. And also the abolition of car alarms. And someone to bring me a perfect sandwich like the kind they make at WitchCraft whenever I need lunch (like now).

And like every writer I know, I’m frustrated by the chasm between what I am hearing in my head and what I’m hearing, so to speak, on paper. Sometimes, a song comes out before you even realize you’re writing it. I wrote IF I STAY in three months without even realizing I was writing a book. I don’t know if it’s perfect but it is the way it should be. There is no chasm in my mind between how the book should be and how it is. WHERE SHE WENT took me 21 drafts. It was a muddled song. I didn’t know if I would ever get there. I got there, but only after turning it into my editor and having her say two really smart things that made me realize I was writing in the wrong key.

Now I’m deep in a new book and feeling miles away from any kind of melody, let alone a perfect song. And the terrifying part is knowing. Knowing the wide distance between what you can accomplish and what you are producing and knowing that you might not ever get there. That at some point, you won’t get there.  I try to calm myself down. My deadline is not for three months. I have several months of tinkering, and then my editor extraordinaire gets her hands on it and we go through the revision process all over again.


So that’s where I stopped. Because it was just seeming too depressing because I genuinely worried I’d never get there. Because this book is kind of outside my comfort zone (no musicians, no death; how twisted that death is my comfort zone).

But then I just got to work. And kept chipping away, and I don’t know that the song is perfect, but it’s definitely starting to sound like the tune in my head. At least to me. How it sounds to you all is an entirely different matter and we all have our own opinions over what comprises a perfect song (mine is correct, though).

Also, as it happens, the Grammy nominations were announced a short while after I wrote this blog and it created a bit of a Perfect Song War in our household in the Best Song category, with my 4 year-old favoring Adele, my 7 year-old loving Katy Perry’s “Firework, “and me and the husband firmly in the Mumford Camp. I don’t know that “Firework” is a perfect song, but it’s pretty damn catchy, so I’ve added it to the list.


Why do you think most bands can’t repeat the magic, if you indeed think that? And what are your perfect songs? Tell me and I’ll post a new playlist.

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  1. Last night while driving home Arcade Fire’s No Cars Go came on. It had been awhile since I had listened to it but I found myself steering wheel tapping/pounding, fist pumping and just feeling the music. To me that is what makes a perfect song, one that makes me feel or awakes my soul. It doesn’t matter which emotion, it can make me happy, sad, loved, whichever. It is the same with books or movies.
    As for one hit wonders I think they let pressure get to them, pressure to be better or to be different. But I also have friends who only want the same thing from the same artist they don’t give them room for growth and they miss out on giving other albums a chance.

  2. Love this post– the muddled song is a perfect analogy.

    A professor once told me that the Beatles “A Day In The Life” is considered the perfect song in most musical circles. I don’t know about the “most” part, but it’s a contender. As for current favorites, I would submit “Brackett, WI” by Bon Iver and “Civilian” from Wye Oak.

  3. Oh, Kate. I LOVE Wye Oak. Civilian is one of my favorite songs!

  4. Jamie and I have this same discussion often as well. I need the lyrics AND the build up, he is more reliant on beats and a strong guitar riff. Right now we agree that The Suburbs by Arcade Fire is pretty perfect. Personally Feist is often one of my go to people. I adore her.

  5. Bloodbuzz Ohio! Michelle introduced me to Bloodbuzz Ohio, and I love it. I’m going to have to go listen to it now, in fact. At this moment, I can’t stop listening to The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future by Los Campesinos! I spent last week alternating between that and Falling Slowly and trying not to wreck the Champagne Sonata while I changed out the CDs. I think that they are a perfect duo of wistful, sad, with a little splash of hope. Your eyes brim with tears, but don’t quite spill over.

  6. What an interesting post. I’m glad you got me thinking about this.
    Switchfoot is my all-time favorite band and every album they put out seems to get better. I don’t know how they do it because, as you said, a lot of artists slump and our expectations only get higher.
    A perfect song (for me) by Switchfoot is “Your Love is a Song” from Hello Hurricane. When I hear it, I feel like I’m inside the song itself, part of it.

  7. I think often the reason bands can’t repeat the magic is because they try to change the magic– for some reason they’re not satisfied with their sound in the first album, so they try to change it and usually that’s what ruins it. Bands who know their sound and how to improve it can not only repeat the magic, but top it.
    That said, my “perfect song” at the moment is Safe & Sound by Taylor Swift feat. the Civil Wars. And it probably would be even if I weren’t a huge Hunger Games fan haha. It has really poignant lyrics and the kind of sound (acoustic but not strummy, if that makes sense) that is my definition of perfect music.

  8. Oh, Jessica, do you know that I listened to Falling Slowly before working on If I Stay? It would make me cry and I’d be in the right frame to keep working. How could I have left it off?

  9. My mom is a big fan of the term “perfect song” or “perfect movie” the things that she loves she also calls “gems.” So this post really made me happy.

    For me a perfect song, or “gem” is “Kathleen” by Josh Ritter. It’s got the line, “All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights” and for me there’s no better line you could say to a girl.

    Love the post and the playlist :)

  10. It’ funny see Mumford & Sons in your list, they’re great! But my current passion it’s a band called Noah and the whale, who began with Mumford.
    And guess what? They have a album called ‘The first days of spring’ that was written based on the ending of the relationship of the singer, and a former member of the band.
    It was my playlist while reading Where She Went. It’s a sad CD, but the band has anothers CD’s and i love the tunes!
    They have even a fidle on the band! That bring a plus to their songs…and the lyrics…awwww…!!!

    Basically, i’m in love, and in the moment they are may definition of the perfection! =D

  11. There are a lot of songs I love, but the two songs I think are perfect are:

    Light & Day/Reach for the Sun by the Polyphonic Spree and Your Ex-Lover is Dead by Stars.

    In my opinion, perfect songs have catchy and/or perfectly-worded verses and then choruses that make you feel triumphant in some way.

  12. Sorry! Forgot to put the name of one song!

    Give a little love – Noah and the whale

  13. Have you ever heard the band Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s? They’re a lot like some of the bands you’ve mentioned before. Some of my favorite songs of their’s are Talking in Code, Broadripple is Burning, A Light On a Hill, Barfight Revolution/Power Violence, A Sea Chanty Of Sorts, and New York Coty Hotel Blues. If you’re ever looking for new music, check them out!

  14. I will never tire of “Papa Was a Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields. Beautiful lyrics that make me want to cry.

  15. These are such awesome suggestions!!! And they are making me remember other favorite songs, like Sufjan’s CHICAGO. How could’ve I have forgotten. Playlist didn’t have Papa Was A Rodeo (one of my all-time faves; when they sing together at the end, I cry!!!) so I subbed Book of Love, which is so romantic! Also it makes a nice lullaby. I used to sing to my oldest daughter when she was a baby.

  16. I recommended Life On Mars? last night on Twitter, and I was curious as to the rest of the songs. This is one seriously awesome list. I picked Bowie because I actually had a lengthy conversation with my brother many moons ago about the Perfect Song, and the conversation was inspired by Life On Mars?. We think it’s perfect because, on first listen, it just blows you mind. It’s got Perfect Chords, where the first chord is perfect, and the next one is even better, and so on until every chord fits together life an amazing piece of amazing. I swear we were sober while having this conversation :)

  17. Jessica, I frequently have these conversations, sober.
    Life on Mars is my second favorite Bowie song.
    I am posting my favorite one to the list now. It, too, is a perfect song.

  18. Who’s to Say by Vanessa Carlton.

    It feels like an entire story in the space of a song.

  19. These are all great! A few for me…
    Horchata- Vampire Weekend
    Airplanes- Local Natives
    East Harlem- Beirut
    The Walls Are Coming Down- Fanfarlo
    Where is My Mind- Pixies

  20. “England” or “Slow Show” by The National. I am loving seeing The National already on your list, plus not one but two David Bowie appearances.

    other perfect songs: “Breathe Me” by Sia, “Let Go” by Frou Frou, “Fade into You” by Mazzy Star, “Paradise Circus” by Massive Attack… I’ll stop now.

  21. You are so lovely, Gayle. I think I’d be happy reading your grocery list. And as far as Adele 21, I actually think Someone Like You is my favorite song on that album – it just makes my chest all tight and full and happy-sad. I am with you on Mumford and Sons, and the funny thing is that entire album is so Book Project #1 to me, but my co-author is not a fan at all. I love how subjective music is, just like books. But I can say – objectively – I cannot wait to read your next book. xo – L

  22. I loved this post, because I attempt to write and my husband is an accomplished composer/musician.
    I like your search for the perfect song. I can think back to songs I listened to while reading certain books.
    I like to listen to some instrumental music at times- there is one song that I feel is the perfect song and it just happens to be one of my husband’s (composed long before we met, but it was the one song that seemed to speak to my soul even when I didn’t know him yet.)


  23. Confession– I had not watched Once when I heard you mention Falling Slowly in your talk at the book festival, but I scurried out and got to it, and wondered how I had managed to limp along without that song in my life. Book of Love is also a favorite! And Resurrection Fern by Iron & Wine…

  24. This is a great post. I just wrote a blog entry about how to listen to an album for the first time. I mentioned how excited I was to listen to one of my favorite band’s third album and how I had high hopes that I was certain they’d maintain.

    I’m embarrassed that I am not totally, completely, 100% in love with it. It’s really depressing. I almost feel guilty.

    Reading your blog is helping me to cope. And your list of perfect songs will get me through this rough time. There are a couple more I would recommend a listen: “Pyro” by Kings of Leon. “Mary”, too. “Crack The Shutters” by Snow Patrol. And almost all of Brandon Flowers’s album Flamingo. I don’t want to recommend a single song from that one, because it might keep you from giving the others a fair listen. It’s THAT good.

  25. I LOVE perfect songs. I have a playlist called “effective music” in iTunes made of songs that make me tear up, doodle the lyrics in inappropriate places (bills, tax documents), and start the song over if someone tries to talk to me in the middle of it.

    When I used to make mix CDs in high school, I’d always put my fav. perfect song as track #9 (my favorite number). Sentimental, much?

    I think The National, Mumford and Arcade Fire are my favorite from your list.

    BUT, if you’ve never heard it, you need to listen to “All I Ever Wanted” by The Airborne Toxic Event!!

    This. Song.

    I could listen to it forever.

    Other honorable mentions:

    “Someone That I Used to Know” by Gotye (my newest obsession)

    “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

    “God Made Man” by Young the Giant

    “The World at Large” by Modern Mouse

    “Cold Fame” by Band of Skulls

    “Numbers” by Great Northern

    “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)” by Panic! at the Disco

    “Girls Like You” by The Naked & Famous

    “Little Black Submarines” by The Black Keys

  26. Gayle, I freaked out when I’d read in an interview a while ago that “Papa Was a Rodeo” is your karaoke song. I thought, “Gayle loves ‘Papa Was a Rodeo,’ is a fan of The Mr. T Experience, AND wrote two of my favorite books?!” It was mind-boggling.

    P.S. The part when they sing together at the end makes me cry, too!

  27. Some mine their diaries and use up all of their inspiration. The lead from Everclear once snarked that he’d exorcised all his daddy issues through song and found himself with nothing left to sing about.

    Some bands outgrow each other. U2 nearly broke up when, at the height of their early success, half the band wanted to experiment with a new sound for fear they’d become a stale stadium band. (The album that tension produced, Achtung Baby, is considered by some their best work.)

    For most bands, I think it’s the fishbowl effect. You spend years writing, playing, bonding, and fine-tuning your sound until you have one perfect and glorious album, but you do all that work at your own pace, in the privacy of your nobodyness. Then you make it big and you’re under the microscope, and your handlers want you to do the same job PLUS a new job, the full-time job of self-promotion, and you’ve got to do all of that on their schedule and while everybody’s watching. Very few people will produce their best work under that kind of pressure.

    My favorite perfect song (of the right now, at least) is Bishop Allen’s “Fireflies.” It’s just full of that hopeful, fearful moment of the beginning of love…

  28. Mo:
    That is probably the best explanation I’ve heard so far. At least writers get to work in quiet, not so much promotion, and we can take our time.

    I love Bishop Allen. I hadn’t heard this song. But I have a thing for Firefly songs (see Heavens to Betsy, American Music Club). I’ll see if I can add those to the list, too.

    Oh, wait, Playlist doesn’t have those. I’ve added my favorite Bishop Allen song.

  29. I love this post! I agree with what you said. You described the perfect song reall well – “A song that starts out with some kind of riff or rhythm that catches your attention straight away, gets your toes tapping. Then it starts to build, bringing in added instrumentation or vocals that create or sort of maelstrom effect, so that the next thing you know, you’re into the song in both a physical and emotional way.”

    Some songs I find perfect include Blind Pilot’s “3 Rounds and a Sound”, Scarlet Johansson’s cover of Steel Train’s “Bullet”, and probably The Mary Onette’s “Love’s Taking Strange Ways”.

    Also, you’re awesome. xx

  30. Everyone’s definition of The Perfect Song is different, if anything, your post and all these comments only add to that fact. Which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest things about writing books. Your book might be perfect for ‘her’ and ‘her’ but not perfect for ‘her’. It’s lovely, subjective life.

    I find that my Perfect Songs really depend on the day, time and hormonal balance of my body. If I’m preparing to write suspense, I’m not going to get pumped up with Adele, but if I need to get into the relationship zone I also can’t rely on Lil Wayne.

    There’s a time and a place, and in a way, that makes every song The Perfect Song.

  31. So last night Jessica and I were talking about “perfect” songs. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anything befitting that description. However, I did think of several songs that, no matter how many listens, never get old. In fact, I think they magically get better with each listen. These songs range in style and tempo from Patrick Wolf’s “The Magic Position” to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love”. One of my all-time favorite songs would have to be “Safe and Sound” by Electric President.

    Now I’m itching to make a new playlist…

  32. Mumford & Sons are pretty awesome, but I recommend as a perfect song “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers.

  33. California Stars by Billy Bragg & Wilco. I had the CD years ago, and just had to buy it off of iTunes b/c I was in withdrawal. Love that song. Pretty darn close to perfect.

  34. There are so many perfect songs out there! haha, I love a lot of the ones on your list, here are some others that I either have been obsessed with in the past or am currently obsessed with. :)

    Strange and Beautiful by Aqualung
    Apathy by Elizabeth and the Catapult
    Mad World by Gary Jules
    Hey There Delilah by The Plain White Ts (I know…)
    Animal Arithmetic by Jònsi
    Transylvania by McFly
    Welcome Home by Radical Face

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