#4 Beyond (“Better” track by track)
I did “behind the song” blog series for both of my last two albums, and some people seem to like them, so I thought I would do it again! “Beyond” is the fourth track from my latest release, Better. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.
I realize I’m repeating myself again by saying this, but I’d been kicking around the idea for this song for a very long time.
It wasn’t much, just the basic idea – a song about growing up as an agnostic (who would slowly become an atheist over time) but raised with a religion, Catholicism. I had the song title and the basic direction I wanted to take it in: starting with feeling trapped in the sterile environment of the church and then moving onto a more expansive, cosmic definition of the word “beyond.”
I wasn’t raised super religious or traumatized (much) or anything like that, but I did have to go to CCD from the ages of about 6-9, and continued to get dragged to mass every Sunday for a couple more years after that. I think a lot of people, especially if they follow their parents’ religion, would think this isn’t a big deal, and I suppose it isn’t really. But I can’t say that it wasn’t emotionally uncomfortable at the time, or that it didn’t have an impact on me, because it was and it did.
This was another one of my song ideas I kept in a computer folder somewhere and passed over it on every writing session because it just didn’t call out to me as an amazing idea. And then during FAWM (February Album Month) this year, because it was all about being prolific and finishing lots of stuff, I thought, why not? And I ended up being quite happy with the finished product!
I’m actually pretty proud of the structure and rhyme scheme of this one, because for the most part I actually stuck to one! (Not perfect rhymes, which I often find tacky and way too restrictive, but just a rhyme scheme in general.) It’s not that I don’t appreciate proper structure. I love well-structured poetry, and Frank Turner (the songwriter I idolize, in case you’ve been living under a rock) generally writes very well-structured songs with tight rhyme schemes. But usually when I’m writing, my top priorities are meaning and interest, and I find it maddening trying to focus on those and rhyming at the same time. I could always go back and add in rhyme scheme in later drafts, but if I’m relatively happy with the lyric, that’s usually just going to diminish it.
The first little couplet came to me first, after the choruses. (And yes, I’m aware that “Sunday” and “fine day” don’t technically rhyme at all because the end syllable is identical. I don’t care; as I said, I’m no stickler for rhymes.) I actually do remember my first year of CCD in first grade. I remember getting the religious workbook (fresh workbooks were always one of my great pleasures as a kid, and I still like them), and I remember baking bread and thinking it was a lot of fun and smelled delicious.
But I also remember feeling trapped. Everything was so white and drab, an obvious sign that they wanted to discourage creativity. Mostly for me it was just another one of those places where your parents force you to go regularly when you’re a kid, and you’re bored and miserable but there’s nothing you can do about it. It helps that I revisited those halls last year (a story for another day) and so the reactivated sensory memories (like “the scent of the overbleached rug”) were fresh in my mind when I wrote this song.
I can also distinctly remember two significant moments of dissociation from the church, which together basically inspired the second verse. First, fourth grade was the year for first confessions, and I decided very firmly that I didn’t want to do it. It’s hard to explain, it wasn’t really fear or privacy; I just decided that I despised the whole idea of it and didn’t want to partake. My mom tried for a long time to convince me to go through it, even if I had to invent something simple and not be genuine, but I would have none of it and third grade was my last year of CCD. This was the incident that inspired the “no one had the right to my secrets” line.
Then, as I said, I was still forced to go to church (without CCD) for about two years after that. Now, I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but in our church, there was a certain time during every mass when the children were taken to a separate room and were read those watered down, sugarcoated children’s Bible stories. We had no idea what the adults were doing. I remember begging my mom to let me stay with the adults, and when I was about 11, she finally relented.
Well, it turns out the priest used that time to discuss the really bleak stuff: hell, end times, details of punishments that sinners would get. I was not only immediately turned off by this, but also extremely disappointed that this was the “adult talk” I’d been looking forward to all those years. First off, I kind of just didn’t buy it — if it was really true that the world could end any day and sinners would be punished, why did so few churchgoers actually behave as if that was the case? Second, even at that age, I was conscious about how those ideas were affecting my psyche, and I didn’t like it. I had some really serious, non-tantrum conversations with my mom and while she really didn’t agree with my decision, to keep the peace she eventually let me start staying home when everyone else went to church.
I’m not sure how much the last part of the song actually adds, but I rarely feel satisfied with a verse-chorus structure alone. I always feel like I need to add either a twist or something that ties together the meaning of the song. In this case, I went for a bit of both. I thought the “I don’t need a god to figure out right from wrong” was a good declaration of what I wanted to say, I suppose because the reason parents force religion on their children is to teach morality, but we don’t need religion for morality. In fact, if you always followed Christianity and especially the Bible (and the same is true for most other religions), you’d find yourself on the wrong side of a lot of moral issues.
The “I don’t need a second life because this one is already long enough” just kind of came to me, and it felt so right that I had to include it. At first, I wasn’t even sure I agreed with it – I was like, is life long enough? What about people who die really young? But now I suppose I’m happy with it and I like what it is saying. I don’t need to be immortal, I’ll be satisfied with what I’ve got.
The chords and melody of this song were developed in conjunction with the lyrics, which I find always seems to lead to better songs. I finished the chorus first, as I almost always do. Then I basically had made music for the first three lines of the song, used that to make the second half of the verse, and then used the first verse to make the second one. The more lines of lyric I write before even considering music, the more likely I am to ruin the song by either not sticking to a structure at all or just writing some chords and melody that are really simple and formulaic and sound like one or more of my other songs.
The last little thing I’ll mention on this one (it got a bit long!) is I’ve had some feedback from some people that they don’t like the extreme repetition of “beyond, beyond, beyond, beyond.” They find it annoying. I guess that’s where taste comes in because while there are a lot of parts of my songs I’m unhappy with, that is not one of them. I actually love that chorus!
The first time I ever went to school on a Sunday
I had a fresh workbook and we baked bread, it was a fine day
But it didn’t take me long to tire of the white-washed walls
I still think about the scent of the overbleached rug
Like they could never wash away all the heretics’ blood
Positive beliefs they had started to fall away
I’d stare at those four white-washed walls closing in on me and say
I really hope there’s something else beyond this
Beyond, beyond, beyond, beyond
‘Cause I can still remember the day I stopped listening
The apocalypse and all the punishments didn’t sit well with me
So I made up my mind and I told them that I wouldn’t be back
I told them no one had the right to my secrets
And I was already on my way to mental freedom
But I was still thinking thoughts that now make me cringe
‘Cause the human mind’s always got room for wishful thinking
But I don’t need a god to figure out right from wrong
And I don’t need a second life when this one is already long enough
I don’t care if there’s anything else beyond this
Beyond, beyond, beyond, beyond