Jane Ellen


JMT 1.04 Side Dish: The Lighthouse's Tale

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 4: Takeaway Side Dish: The Lighthouse's Tale

Rather than looking at an artist, an instrument, or even a style, today's musical takeaway is a side dish that goes behind the scenes to figure out what makes a song amazing. Is it the band? the arrangement? the lead vocal, the guitar solo, or the jam? the writers or the producers? Certainly all of those elements come into play, but let's examine 'The Lighthouse's Tale' by Adam McKenzie and Chris Thile, recorded by Nickel Creek, and try to figure out what makes it tick. Some of you will undoubtedly know this song, but even if you don't, I hope you'll join me in this brief exploration.

Nickel Creek is a newgrass or progressive bluegrass trio that celebrated 25 years together in 2014. The band consists of mandolinist Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee, th as in thumb), along with siblings Sara Watkins (fiddle) and Sean Watkins (guitar). 'The Lighthouse's Tale' is one of three singles released in 2000 from their debut album Nickel Creek produced by bluegrass legend Alison Kraus with Scott Thile, Chris's father, adding bass. It's an odd choice for a single; first of all, it's long, clocking in at just over 5 minutes, and secondly, the lyrics play out like a Victorian era Emily Brontë story. Depending upon whether you're more of a words or music person, you can even get tangled up in arguing over the meaning of the lyrics.

I could easily spend a month of Takeaways on Chris Thile, the song's co-writer and lead vocalist, who is a multi-instrumentalist considered by many to be one of the musical geniuses of his generation. But instead, I'm going to cut right to the chase. Here's the official video for 'The Lighthouse's Tale':

But guess what? In the grand tradition of making everything suitable for radio, there's a minute and 3 seconds shaved off the song. I wanted you to see the official video, however, in case you weren't familiar with the band. Here's the video I will be referencing for the takeaway (you can access complete lyrics here):

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Maybe it's because I grew up in an era of children's story books featuring talking inanimate objects, such as The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, but there's something undeniably appealing about a song narrated by a lighthouse, who is remembering a tragic love story from its past (I warned you it had Victorian undercurrents).
  • 2. Musically, the format is deceptively simple; short instrumental interludes based on the intro are interspersed between verses and chorus. The genius here is the way the interludes change throughout the song. The opening 8 seconds feel undefined as if they only serve to set the tempo, but then our first recognizable bit of melody begins on the mandolin; that melody is repeated before the first verse begins. The second interlude begins at 0.59 secs, and sounds as if it will be the same, but the fiddle joins the mandolin on the repeat. The third interlude at 2.10 now gives the melody to the fiddle immediately, and on the repeat the mandolin adds harmony. The fourth interlude at 3.20 is almost unrecognizable; it follows the news of the terrible storm and seems to be lost, or even becalmed. The final short interlude at 4.30 repeats the familiar melody from the beginning of the song, before 2 lines of verse finish the story.
  • 3. The musical structure of the verses serve to advance the narrative. Compare the first verse with the second which begins at 1.15. The mandolin begins to drive the rhythm, changing the feel of the song to underscore the joy found in these lyrics, as the lighthouse confesses unconditional love for its keeper ('til his joy meant everything to me); the fiddle joins with a counter melody to accentuate the keeper's love for the girl who shone with beauty and light that he was to marry. The third verse, however, is the emotional climax of the story, and yet the arrangement conceals that fact almost until the last. The verse is restrained in its grief; the tempo never slows but the music feels quietly heavy. Halfway through the third verse everything turns, unexpectedly we hear the volume begin to rise just as the keeper buries his love in the sand. Then it's as if there's no holding back as the first time listener begins to understand that the anguished storyline is still advancing.
  • 4. The chorus happens three times (that's the part that begins and the waves crashing around me) and each time it differs greatly in both mood and texture. The first chorus at 1.49 (before the story takes a wrong turn) features Chris singing by himself; musically it feels rather peaceful. The second chorus at 2.59 brings everyone in on vocals, as does the final chorus at 4.09, but listen to the way the words winds that blow are sung each time. Before the second chorus, we have just been told of the ship wreck and the wild and terrible wind (everyone now sings); but the third chorus comes after the story has (inconceivably) gotten even worse, and the harmonies rise in pitch on the words winds that blow to match the dramatic twist of the story. Before we move on, I'd also like to point out how the last few words are sung (what can never be). If we were to speak those words, each syllable would probably be equal. But another genius twist prolongs the second half of the word never, to drive home the meaning of the final line of the chorus: And the winds that blow remind me of what has been, and what can never be.
  • 5. Now I'd like you to shut your eyes and listen to the song once more; I hope you'll hear it a little differently this time. Be sure to let me know on social media, by email, or in the blog comments, if you'd like more of these Musical Takeaway Side Dishes. See you next time!

At first listen this may seem to be yet another gloomy musical tale of lost love; in reality the lyrics are about survival and carrying on despite - and in spite of - the tragedies of life.

Find out more!

Nickel Creek on Facebook
Chris Thile on Facebook
What is progressive bluegrass music?
Paste: 11 best Nickel Creek songs (as of 2014)

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)


Thanks, Hazel, I'm so glad that you enjoyed it!
Love Nickel Creek! Can't believe they're all grown up now and doing different things. Thanks for breaking down The Lighthouse's Tale for us, Jane!

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