Song Deconstructed: ‘Die To Be With You’ by Eli Musser
A true student of popular music, this New York songwriter invites us to learn a thing or two about love
Originally from West Virginia but now living in New York, Eli Musser is a singer-songwriter who skilfully combines his formal training with a natural instinct for making infectious pop-rock. The few songs we’ve heard from his upcoming debut, Content, call to mind similarly adroit artists such as Big Star, Fountains Of Wayne and Keane – bringing together confident melodies, boldly emotive lyrics and studio proficiency.
Here, he opens the doors to his latest single Die To Be With You, a classic love song which just can’t help but throw everything it’s got at the object of its affection – chords and all.
In addition to being kind of a weird kid, I was also an early-onset romantic, writing couplets and reading young-adult fantasy novels. Growing up, my favourite Beatles song was She Loves You. I was enthralled by the endearing manner in which some otherwise mild-mannered dudes could frame their yearning pronouncements with cool harmonies and a killer backbeat. Long before I ever started playing guitar, the joyfully frantic catchiness of jangly instruments set against impassioned vocals and lyrics set itself up as a template, my brain insisting quality was intricately linked to how many times you could squeeze the word “love” into a chorus. As a tribute to that firm belief (and in a time and place that it was still believable), Die To Be With You predates my songwriting process; I was hooked on a feeling. My rural West Virginian upbringing fed the daydream: eventually, this was how love would feel, and I’d be ready to let the world know.
If you’re going to commit that most dire of all songwriting transgressions — turning a fun song serious through lyrics — don’t mess around, jump feet first straight into The Important. That’s what young love does so well, it has no sense of proportion or humility. If you go all the way in, way past the dial, you’ll find yourself talking about mortality. Which is to say, Die To Be With You is a song about young love, in advance of the soigné trappings of adulthood and more mature sensibilities. The North Star here is all those sing-song-y lyrics from the 50s and early 60s about teenagers who met at a high school dance and are thrown into impossibly earnest, life-or-death, do-or-die situations. Those stories are hallmarks of great folk, blues and country lyrics.
If rock and roll ever owed those genres a nod, it’s in the storytelling — before you discover your own common sense, some desperate emotional situation unfolds, in the most heartfelt way possible. As overt as the word choices are in Die To Be With You, the passion isn’t conveyed with a wink. This song has no true narrative of its own; it’s just a lyrical homage to that connection. Expressing your need to do anything — ANYTHING — to be with the person you love/need/obsess over, is one of the great gifts bestowed upon Western civilization by rock and roll lyrics.
I’ve got a few basic four-chord songs, and Die To Be With You ain’t one of ‘em. Too many chords, you ask? Nope — as any teenager in love will tell you, you can’t have too much of a good thing. I wanted the song to reflect that search and restlessness, and a great way to do that was simply to keep moving. The melody serves as the grounding element against the constantly shifting chords, which function more like a Bird Blues than a standard rock progression. Without following the roots, this song doesn’t really feel like it modulates as often as it does.
The middle eight — or here, middle sixteen — settles into a different key, just long enough to fool you again. A lot of the writing on this forthcoming record, Content, wends its way into various compositional corners, but this one has the distinction of being nearly equal parts Coltrane and Cobain: major and minor barre chords cycling through tritone substitutions, a change at almost every bar. It’s a lot to keep up with physically, and playing this song live I still do a lot of looking down at the fretboard.
In The Studio
I’d recorded this song previously to tape, in an earlier version, with a well-known analog-only producer — and coming out of that session, I realized I’d want to paper the walls much differently. What was strictly a guitar-based excursion didn’t do justice to the Cars-like construction of the song. I wanted to take full advantage re-recording at Renegade Studios in Manhattan and not just phone in the same groove, which ended up being a lot more Killers-like than I had planned. There’s also the Herman’s Hermits/Elvis Costello vibe purring through the backbeat, flashing its teeth in the Vox Jaguar stabs during the chorus.
When we fired it up, the Vox’s oscillator would go cattywampus on us at random times, and it took a solid fifteen minutes of warming-up and good luck before we were able to get a usable take. Sonically, the song really came together when (Renegade engineer) Geoff Sanoff recommended I chase after the Pretenders-y Tele track which ended up floating over everything. Also, Renegade is a rad place to track instruments as the facility has a CLASP machine, effectively allowing you to record onto tape but print digitally. Full credit also given to the instrumentalists who made this track come alive: Cat Popper on bass, Brian Wolfe on drums and Frank LoCrasto on keys.
My vocals here are double-tracked, using two selectively mixed master takes. Bryce Goggin made sure the final mix wasn’t mired in overlapping frequencies and washy sounds — no easy feat when you’ve triple-tracked rhythm guitars, added organ parts and dropped in a vocal which sits right between the two.
A little bit Gene Vincent, a little bit Gene Ween and a Whole Lotta Love, Die To Be With You really does make me feel, when listening back, like I did when I was rocking out to The Beatles in the back of my mom’s station wagon. It’s also a great reminder; being cool is never more important than being in love. Fly that flag, fall head over heels, make proclamations that would make any sensible adult snicker. Because you’re only gonna fall in love for the first time once. Ultimately, goosebumps — whether you get them from songs, or from people — are always worth getting.
Die To Be With You is out now and Eli’s debut album Content will follow on shortly after. For further info, take a look at elimusser.com