This week’s Song of the Week is “Wooden Heart” by Listener.
Listener is an underground hip hop turned spoken-word rock band from Fayetteville, Arkansas. The brainchild of Dan Smith, Listener got its formal beginnings in 2003 with the release of Whispermoon, a traditional hip hop album by Smith released under the name. While not in the genre that we’ve come to expect from Listener, the album represents the simple beginnings of what Listener would later evolve into. After adding a few members, transforming Listener from a solo project into a full-fledged band, in 2007 Listener released their first spoken-word style album. The album, Return to Struggleville, was Listener’s first effort in combining powerful, lyrically charged spoken word poetry and simple, compelling music to create highly emotional, impassioned songs. You can be the judge, but Listener creates music which leaves those who are listening contemplative not only of the song’s deeper meaning, but also introspective, being coaxed into taking a harder look into their own lives.
About Wooden Heart:
The lyrics to Wooden Heart could be seen by some as a citadel of metaphor describing a lifetime of experiences while, concurrently, others could attest to the song being the perfervid autobiography of the heavy-hearted soul. The passion of the piece, while either read independently as a poem, delivered as spoken word, or in concert with the accompanying music (which is available as instrumental as well), the inconsequence of the medium should be the first clue hinting at the expression of something consequential. In a sense, it almost seems too big to write about and deconstruct.
Lyrically, the song can be said to escort us through a lifetime – from being “born to broken people on their most honest day of living” to its final honest testament of “only having what we remember.” Wooden Heart is therefore a wholistic expression of life only defined and limited in interpretation by the narrow nature of individual experience. Still, it stands as a monolith for us all to use as, to use the song’s principle metaphor, a sail to guide these rocky seas.
Musically, the song begins in what sounds like a crowded room. This room, serving as the foundation of the song’s four minute crescendo, is drown out almost instantly with the song’s first simple notes ringing out into the listener’s ears. Smith’s voice, affected and honest, further cuts above the music delivering a spoken word soliloquy utilizing the symbolism of a wrecked ship, ocean and a beach to describe his wooden heart.
Especially relevant is the symbolism in this piece. Like any good poetry, the thoughtful prose manages to reanimate a relatively benign shipwreck into a soul traversing rocky seas:
My dreams are sails that I point towards my true north, stretched thin over my rib bones, and pray that it gets better.
But it won’t, at least I don’t believe it will.
So I’ve built a wooden heart inside this iron ship, to sail these blood red seas and find your coasts.
Don’t let these waves wash away your hopes.
This war-ship is sinking, and I still believe in anchors,
Pulling fistfuls of rotten wood from my heart, I still believe in saviors.
While just a fraction of the first verse, it seems that Smith in this aims to establish a sinking ship, driven by dreams, traversing an ocean wrecked casualties (a blood red sea), with a Captain being told to remain optimistic while in the midst of this, being made to repair the very thing that was built to secure the passage in the first place.
Yet, ships that take on water or find the rocky shore inevitably become shipwrecks. The symbolism continues and is illustrated in a reprise to close the three verses of the song, illustrated here, which could nearly be a poem in itself:
Because we are all made out of shipwrecks, every single board,
Washed and bound like crooked teeth on these rocky shores,
But I am all made out of shipwrecks, every twisted beam,
Lost and found like you and me, all scattered out on the seas,
Cause I know that our church is all made out of shipwrecks from every hull these rocks have claimed
But we pick ourselves up, and try and grow better through this change.
To be blasted apart and ruined, constituent parts scattered to sea, and to call the very rocks responsible for your destruction your church illustrates a deeper meaning of what it means to be shipwrecked. Smith seems to be referencing the endless hope of dreamers through “but we pick ourselves up, and try and grow better through this change” and also through an earlier lyric “Everything falls apart at the exact same time, it all comes together perfectly for the next step.” And while the song is occupied at times with trying to stay afloat, there is an acquiescence that even in sinking – being smeared across a rocky shore, there is still something worthy of redemption and hope in the wreckage.
So, pushing aside the metaphor, what is this song about? Like most poetry, it’s largely up for interpretation. To me, I find it to be a tale of someone who is struggling with struggling, but is forever redeemed by an endless hope that things will work out for the best. Defeat is exhausting, and there is this cultural notion (at least, in America) that expressing dissatisfaction or exhaustion is weakness or idle complaining – and there is no place for it. You’re expected to perpetually “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and get on with living without making a sound. However, there seems to be an object of exhaustion or maybe it’s comfort, in this song, and the object seems to be another person, or people. They are acknowledged at the end of each verse, in Smith wishing that they could just “fold our lives like crashing waves and run up on this beach” and noting how they are both tattered rags wishing they were sewn together. Maybe it’s the comfort of having a hand to hold through the rough times, or maybe it’s the frustration of wishing that hand would come around.
All said, there has never been a more poetic rumination into the consequence of a heart being worn on a sleeve than this song. No matter which way you slice it, there is something about this song that is capable of identifying darkness in each of us, coaxing it out, and healing it. Whether you’re a fan of spoken word or not, there is an impassioned vein to this song which should be easily recognized and cherished by fans of all different genres of music.