When Prefix Magazine
interviewed The Airborne Toxic Event, one of the most important questions the journalist asked Mikel Jollett was about his songwriting technique: Prefix:
Let's talk about breaking standard pop-songwriting formula, at least lyrically. A lot has been made of the literary aspects of the band, from the White Noise reference to the song "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," which adapts an Irwin Shaw short story. In fact, most of the songs seem to be structured that way – as short, compact stories rather than verse-chorus-verse, with the lyrics hewing closer to something like "The Gift" by Lou Reed than a more traditional tune, like "Satisfaction." Is that intentional, or is that just how it comes out? Jollett:
It's just how it comes out. With pop songs, sometimes it feels forced to add a chorus – it's like, 'verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, refrain.' Very pop, right? I just write my songs the way they feel they should be written, the way the story feels it should be told. Though, that being said, we do have a couple of songs that are closer to that traditional structure. It's not really something I consciously think about. It all depends on where it feels like the song should go… And during a show you've got to tell a story, make an arc, bring the audience with you. At certain points in the show you use a particular song for resonance, to hit those emotional peaks and valleys of the story you're telling."
Even the band's live shows are known for following that classical narrative arc. "Sometime Around Midnight," one of the band's most popular and powerful songs, is usually reserved for the climax and then some more mellow tracks round out the dénouement.
Similarly, each song contains its own independent narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end… unlike the recycling of verses and choruses that often takes place in typical pop songs. In this way, Jollett's writing is actually very linear and the story progresses chronologically on the surface. But it is the style
in which he writes that allows for all the temporal and spatial play that goes on in a lot of the songs.
"Sometime Around Midnight" is clearly the product of a writer who knows his literary devices and schemes. What's interesting is that its poetic structure and style constantly rupture the supposed temporal flow that it follows.
Just as his ex remains present in his mind, all of her actions in the song are in the present progressive (gerund) tense, a.k.a. the "-ing" form. She is "wearing," "laughing," "turning," "watching," and "holding," literally keeping him fixed in the moment. Yet when she comes up to him and the room suddenly starts spinning, he begins to visualize moments out of the past. The scent memory of her perfume triggers a clear image of her naked in his arms (still described in the present tense) but obviously a mental picture from months before. The "change in emotions" mixes the past and present even more furiously, the memories crashing around him "like feral waves," a sharply descriptive simile. And he can see into the past once again, again using a simile to compare their bodies to "two perfect circles entwined." Next we get a repetition of words that end in the suffix "-less," "homeless" and "hopeless" which emphasize a lacking, an absence.
At this point in the lyrics, the woman leaves the bar with a stranger and for our speaker, sensory imagery begins to take the place of visual imagery. We go from sight to smell, to suddenly feeling drunk and dizzy, to nauseous and shaking with anger: "blood boiling," "stomach in ropes." Finally his friends, at a loss for words, shoot an old cliché at him, saying he looks like he's seen a ghost.
Time disappears completely now as we jump-cut to our man stumbling through the street, drunk and not caring what anyone thinks, while he searches desperately for his lost love. We have no idea how long she was in the bar, how long their conversation lasted, when she left, when he followed her, or how much time he spent searching for her. All we are getting from our speaker are images, feelings, sounds, and visceral descriptions. And at the end of it all, we are left unresolved, with the simple fact that our speaker is going to keep looking for her knowing full well that the sight of her with this other man will probably kill him. (A metaphor, of course, but isn't the entire song an extended metaphor for the sickening feeling of rejection?)