Perfect Pop Songs #1: Felt’s “A Wave Crashed on Rocks” (1986)


This post is the first in a series (as if the title doesn’t make that clear). It will probably take a few years for me to work through the initial list, which is long and keeps growing longer. There are lots of gems on it, of course, and over time my and your ideas of what constitutes a “pop song” will surely be called into question. Provisionally, I’ll simply say that every item that I’ll discuss under this rubric expresses the virtue of simplicity in some way: through the lyrics, sound textures, form, etc.—in most cases, through all three as well as many others. I created this series to present more compact posts that would fill the gap between my more lengthy essays exploring the recorded output of a particular artist. It could almost go without saying that these are some of the most treasured songs in my library, ones that I can rarely ever audition only once.

That last observation leads nicely into the track featured in this inaugural post. My discussing it first doesn’t mean that I think it’s the greatest pop song ever recorded, but if I were to construct such a list it would be featured prominently. It comes from an album that I pulled off the shelf a couple of weeks ago after a conversation with Judith brought it to mind. Forever Breathes the Lonely Word CD CoverThat 1986 album, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (what an evocative title!), is, it turns out, more highly regarded than I thought. A web search turned up a series of encomia for it, including a post on Mojo magazine’s web site designating it album of the day. While there are other brilliant pieces on the album, this song is the one I return to over and over again. I’ve been listening to it obsessively for the last 10 days or so.

“Why?” you might ask.

I love the jangly guitars, the alternately surging and subdued organ, the gently propulsive bass line, the understated but effective drumming, and above all the sentiment conveyed by Lawrence, a not-so-gifted but remarkably expressive singer. And the lyrics? This has to be one of the most thoughtful ruminations on lost love—if that’s what he is indeed describing—and how feeling bereft can color every other engagement with the world. Take the opening three lines. Why are people crying? In the context of mid-1980s England, perhaps over the negative impact of Thatcher’s policies and maybe many other things. Whatever the case, the song’s narrative centers on how the singer simply can’t identify with them, however important their concerns might be—even though he knows the relationship is over, even though his significant other is still making unreasonable demands of him (“I’m not your Jesus so will you get off my cross”). In short, the song expresses tenderness (“It’s totally magic what we’ve just been through”) as well as bitterness (“You in your wisdom, you ruined it all”) and does both in a way that is dreamy, evocative and deeply wistful. And, clocking in just shy of three minutes, it is about as perfect as a pop song can get.

So, given that brief description, check it out if you haven’t already. And, please, use the comments to let me know what you think: about the song, about the series, about whatever.

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