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Song Sources: Common Ground

November 15, 2022

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

I struggled with this song for years, writing a first draft in 2015 and working on the song a little with Joe in 2016. Even right up until the point where I was determined to get it on The Habit of Fear it was a very different sounding song, much more downbeat, with a monotonous strumming pattern and completely missing the kind of angry decisiveness hiding behind an otherwise sweet exterior.

Much like its protagonist.

This one took a bit of digging to get to the heart of it.

We have some live footage of this one from the album release as well. I’m not sure if we’ll ever play it again live

The words you said in your pretty head
Weren’t the same as what you said
Each night’s the same retread since the day you wed
And you missed your chance again

And the drum that pounds is a heartbeat’s sound
In the still and empty space
Where what little you found of the common ground
Is gone and never replaced

One gave you the chance to admit for once
You’re afraid to stay at home
So you put up with one like you’ve always done
Or risk your being alone

And you fought to save every inch you gave
When they came to stake their claim to your name
And you fought to save every inch you gave
But every way you turn’s the same
Every way you turn’s the same
Every way you turn’s the same

So it isn’t worth even one more word
When the time has come to part
For what little they saw of the grace and awe
Of your still beating heart

Sometimes I start a song without a clear idea of what the characters are up to. The more eagle-eyed might spot that the line “For what little they saw of the grace and awe” is a mangling of the line “How little you know of the grief and woe in my poor aching heart” from “The Blackest Crow,” which I recorded about the same time I was writing this song. I actually misheard the line and that mishearing inspired the story that eventually shook out:

A woman in a failing marriage — possibly even a borderline abusive one — is having an affair. Her lover has given her an ultimatum to leave her husband, because he feels he’s being strung along. She comes home late at night and sits along in a dark room on the night, weighing her options. And the more she thinks about the ultimatum, the angrier she gets, as she starts to realize how similar the two men are in their treatment of her.

Armed with this story, I went back and finished the lyrics and made some cursory edits over the course of years. When Joe and I worked on it, he made several suggestions about cutting more syllables — I don’t even have the original lyrics anywhere, but I know that the lines were denser. I’d been criticized before about fitting too many syllables into my lines, but in this case it was a good suggestion and I took it to heart.

The real blocked for me was what I wanted the music to sound like.

Music and Recording

I had some ideas about how I wanted the recording to sound, but they were pretty much abandoned. This song was originally intended for the album that became monsters, and it would have had a sound similar to “Now We’re Gone” — almost like a “sister song”: The song is a conversation with herself taking place in her head, and I wanted it to have a kind of very close intimacy and sparseness.

However, with a couple more years’ perspective, once I finally sat down in summer 2020 to arrange the song, I wanted to focus less on the internal conversation of the song — what’s happening now to the character — and more on where the character wants to be. This meant giving the song a more uplifting arrangement, but I had to be careful to leave in something that doesn’t feel quite settled. This ended up being the detuned guitar chords. I had to program the drums because I couldn’t play the part, and Chris brought it to life after a couple passes. Later during the mixing stage, I realized that I lifted an awful lot of the drum part from “Tonight Tonight” with the rim clicks and 16th note snare part in the bridge, though this part is far simpler and more pop-y.

The drum part was kind of the final piece of the puzzle for getting the song to sound right to me because it let me leave the guitar parts more open. This does mean that the song can sound lifeless played solo on a guitar, but as far as I’m concerned arranging is part of writing, and sometimes it’s okay that a song can’t stand entirely on its own in a stripped-down setting.

Chris Freeland did one thing in mixing with this song I really want to highlight, which is the way the echo sounds on the guitar solo. I gave him a pretty dry sounding part the didn’t sound nearly that pretty. I believe the lead was played on the red tele, since the Don Quixotecaster was the rhythm guitar.

One fun thing to note before I go: I had to go back and transcribe the solo since I had only ever played it for the recording. It’s simple so it didn’t take very long, but it was kind of weird needing to do that.




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