Lyric Lens: “Uncharted Territory” by Adam Gwon
Welcome to Lyric Lens, a series of posts where I take a close look at some of my favorite lyrics, and the tiny details that I think make them so great. Since it was Adam Gwon’s Lyric Writing class that inspired this series, what better song to start with than one of Adam’s? I’ve chosen a song called “Uncharted Territory” from a new show that Adam is working on. There is an absolutely gorgeous performance of it by Betsy Wolfe on Adam’s YouTube, which I had the privilege of seeing performed live earlier this year. It took my breath away then, and it still does now, at least 50 viewings later.
Now, I’m not familiar with the show that this song is from, so I have no choice but to look at it in isolation. The song stands alone so well that I can only imagine how much deeper the experience would be of hearing it performed within a show. I love how the language of the lyric works to introduce us to a character and gradually reveal information about her.
Let’s dive in. Take the first line:
I hear the building sigh, a little night shift song.
Okay, stop right there. So gorgeous. I get the feeling already that we’re in a world somehow apart from the one I live in, because the image of a building sighing is so unexpected, but so evocative. I also love that the phrase “a little night shift song” alludes to the fact that this is, well, a song. It always makes me smile when a musical winks at its own musicality. Let’s go ahead and look at the second line:
In elevator cars, I watch them all night long.
We have to stop again. I promise we won’t keep stopping on every line, but a song’s first few lines are extremely important. They’re kind of make-or-break—is the listener going to be on the edge of their seat for the rest of the song, or totally tuned out? In class Adam always emphasized how little “real estate” there is in a lyric, and the importance of using it wisely. These two lines, and the huge amount that they tell us, are a great example of that. Right away we have a setting—“elevator cars”—and a time frame–“all night long”—and we also know that our singer is in some way an outsider, not one of “them,” whoever they may be.
I’m not going to analyze this song to death by taking you through the entire thing line by line; I just want to point out a few other moments that I especially love. One of them happens to be the rest of the first verse:
They itch for cigarettes. They stare at what they see.
They sit and do their jobs. They are a lot like me.
They’re far away from where they hoped they’d be.
What stands out to me about the imagery of these lines is how beautiful it is to see the specific and the general side by side. It feels so natural, so real. I’m also struck by the placement of “they are a lot like me,” and the way it can, in that position, apply to what comes before it and after it. Again, making good use of limited real estate.
In the second verse, we get this gem of a couplet:
I get a lot of blame, but they don’t comprehend
My job description’s short. It simply reads, “The end.”
These lines really show what a lyricist can do by harnessing the native power of the rhyme. That little phrase, “the end,” doesn’t explicitly spell out a lot for us, the listeners, in terms of what this person does. It goes by so quickly, we could almost miss it. But its placement within the verse achieves two things: the fact that it’s the second half of a rhyme signals to me that it is important, and the fact that it’s at the end of a line gives me time to process it, to think it through.
Then we come to the bridge, where the music ebbs and flows with the emotions of the lyrics, building to a high point and then growing subdued when this character says:
Pieces so unfathomably small
A god like me can’t see them there at all.
Whoa, you guys. She’s a god. That’s the first time I’ve gotten that piece of information! And what an exquisite moment. I’ve gone on a journey with this character, the bridge of the song has taken us to a new place, and then everything falls quiet as she confesses to me who she is. What’s more, she talks about a limitation she has: the people she watches may not be able to comprehend the enormity of the universe, but on the flip side, our human lives are made up of “pieces so unfathomably small” that she will never grasp them. As someone who’s used to thinking of human beings as limited when compared to an omniscient higher power, I find this moment absolutely mind-blowing.
We’re almost done, but I have to point out a couple of things in the last few lines of the song:
I always have to laugh when people say, “God knows,”
’Cause there is only so much that a god can see.
There always has to be
That part where she says, “God knows”? I almost don’t have words to describe how I feel about it. It’s like the whole song has been building to that phrase, which is this perfect combination of completely unexpected and totally inevitable that just makes me think, “YES.” And then at the very end we get the lyric hook again, but now it has new meaning. I’m a real sucker for a song that ends by turning an already good lyric hook on its head—my go-to example is in Merrily We Roll Along, when “we had a good thing going” morphs into “we had a good thing going…going…gone.” In Adam’s song, I’ve been thinking all along that “uncharted territory” was a characterization of what is unknown to humans, but this character ends the song by explaining that the concept exists in her life, too.
What a beautiful, humbling thought to end on. Everybody has to have things they don’t know. Even gods. That’s how the world works. It couldn’t be any other way.