A few weeks ago, we talked about how stories can be turned into music. Today we are going to talk about how one specific song tells a story through its lyrics. If you are living on this planet, you have probably already heard Ed Sheeran’s Castle On The Hill.
In my opinion, Ed Sheeran is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. His songs touch the souls of people of all ages and from very different cultural backgrounds, from all over the world.
Part of the reason is because his songs tell brilliant stories. In the words of his fans at EdSheeran.Us, “They talk about the city he loves and the people in it and of it. They talk about the people made by it, and those damaged by it. They are about love and loss, but are also joyful when you need them to be.”
I still remember the first time I heard this song. It had just been released, and my sister told me to listen to it, because it told a story, and she knew I would love it. So I decided to give it a listen. By the time Sheeran reached the chorus, I already had tears in my eyes.
Why do songs touch us to the point they make us cry?
I am currently reading Michael Jackson’s autobiography, Moonwalk, and he explains: “It is important to reach people, to move them. Sometimes one can do this with the mosaic of the music melody arrangement and lyrics, sometimes it is the intellectual content of the lyrics.”
I believe Castle On The Hill uses both its melody and its — again, brilliant — lyrics to “move people”. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to analyze the melody, since I am far from being a music expert. So in this post, I’ll focus on the song’s lyrical content.
When you listen to Castle On The Hill the first thing that comes to your mind it that it is an autobiographical song. Ed Sheeran’s recurring statement that the song is “a love letter to Suffolk” (his hometown) seems to support that idea.
The story in the song can be divided into three parts.
The first part, corresponding to the first and second strophes, is a flashback and gives us a sight of the narrator’s (or the poetic persona’s, but let’s not complicate things) childhood. He tells us about a remarkable experience of his early years — breaking his leg —, and finishes with experiences that are more generic:
Found my heart and broke it here
Made friends and lost them through the years.
Notice that everyone could say they went through this, even though not everyone could say they broke their leg while running from their brother.
The chorus brings us back to the present, and the narrator is now on the road, on his way back to his hometown. We then understand that he is reminiscing about his life there while looking at those fields that bring back all those memories.
The second part of the story is another flashback, now from the narrator’s early teens. He talks about several things he and his friends would do — little acts of rebellion, portraying a life free of worries and full of parties and fun. Everyone who’s been a teenager can relate to this concept, even if you, like me, were a well-behaved, introverted teen who didn’t really like to party crazy. This part ends with what sounds a little like a lament: “oh, how we’ve grown!”
The last part changes to a much more melancholic tone and we know we are back to the present. The narrator gives us quick updates on what happened to those rebel teens now. In this part, Sheeran carefully picked depressing/boring facts to mention, giving us this feeling of “ugh, life used to be so much better back then!”
In spite of that, he finishes with “But these people raised me/And I can’t wait to go home”, two lines that perfectly sum up the general idea of the song: no matter what happens, there’s no place like home.
(The official music video to this song is a good visual representation of this story, even though there are slight differences.)
“Take me back to when”: the universal feeling of “the good ol’ times”
Here’s why Castle On The Hill made me cry and likely made you cry, too: it is an extremely relatable story.
I’ve already shown above how Sheeran incorporated in his seemingly autobiographical (therefore individual, unique) story events that everyone could say they have experienced themselves.
But he goes beyond that. Sheeran’s song touches us all because he wrote about a universal sentiment, which I like to call “the good ol’ times” feeling, or in other words, nostalgia. From Dictionary.com:
- a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time:
a nostalgia for his college days.
Here’s the thing: the human mind, when remembering the past, tends to emphasize the good memories over the bad ones.
Because of that, chances are that ten years from now, when you look back at 2017, you won’t remember most of your current struggles. You won’t remember how you used to fight all the time with your co-worker, or the bills that kept you awake at night. If you do remember, those things will come up as secondary memories, and it will seem like they had much less importance than the “happy” things. Like the way the sun shone through your office window at around 4 p.m., when Marta would arrive, bringing that cold coffee that tasted awfully, but that you loved — yeah, you loved, because it meant you only had to work one more hour.
Yep, the human brain is a weird thing.
But because of that strange psychological effect, everyone experiences nostalgia when thinking about the past.
And I do mean everyone. No matter how old a person is, I can guarantee they have memories that make them think, “those were the times, man!”
I remember being 7 years old and missing the “good ol’ times” when I used to play with my friends in the kindergarten, then get back home and watch anime with my big brother. I have a journal that I wrote when I was 11, and I mention several times in it that I missed the “happy days” when I would go to my old school together with my best friends (I left such school when I was 10). So yeah, nostalgia has nothing to do with age. It is a human thing.
The sunset over the castle: the timeless moment
One very interesting thing Sheeran does in these lyrics is that he creates a “timeless moment”.
The lines “It’s real: we watched the sunset over the castle on the hill” establish a moment in the story’s timeline that time can’t touch. It is as if he is saying “Ok, time will pass, the years will go by and I will miss it all, but we will always have this one moment.”
The castle, a solid, “permanent” structure represents the timelessness of the memory. It — the castle, and metaphorically, the memory — is eternal. Memories don’t change — that’s part of the reason why we love them so much. Time can ruin everything: it can separate people, it can make us lose our energy, it can destroy precious objects. But a strong memory can’t be touched by any of it.
Ed Sheeran expresses this same idea in another of his masterpieces, utilizing yet another resource to create this timeless moment: a Photograph.
We keep this love in a photograph
We made these memories for ourselves
Where our eyes are never closing
Our hearts were never broken
And time’s forever frozen still
This idea of the “timeless moment” is very common in stories. You can see it in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, for example. How could one forget that scene in the car with Heroes by David Bowie playing in the background? “In that moment, I swear, we were infinite.” What about Paper Towns? Remember that scene when Margot and Quentin are looking above the city? Time stopped just there. And the list goes on.
The attraction these moments hold is that they are a “safe place” of sorts. No matter what happens next, you will always have that memory to come back to — that one moment of happiness will always be there for you. That is the essence of the idea of home. “Home” is not always a place. Sometimes, “home” is a moment.
A “home”, in turn, can represent several things in a story:
- it can be a representation of the origins of the hero, representing his principles, his philosophy, that which he believes in;
- it can be a source of strength for the hero, something that he looks back to when he needs to regain his faith or to remember the reasons why he is fighting;
- it can, at the very least, be a place to come back to, when the hero gets lost in his adventure and begins to forget what is really important.
But this is enough material for another post (I’ll make sure I write it soon).
In our daily life, the idea of “home” means comfort, shelter. That’s why the human mind longs for those timeless, unchanged things called “memories”.
Outtakes: Castle On The Hill for storytellers
So let’s review it: what can we learn from this song?
- A good strategy to create a story that the reader can relate to is to utilize a universal feeling in it. Even though the story will be unique, the feeling it relies on should be universal.
- To evoke such feeling, we can choose to include in our stories events that the reader has likely experienced herself (first kisses, making/losing friends, having her heart broken, etc.).
- If we want to create an idea of home, which can represent several things — the origin of the hero, a source of strength, a place to come back to—, a good way to do that is to establish a timeless moment. It could be anything from watching a sunset to going to the front of a ship (“I’m flying, Jack!”), as long as it “escapes” time.
That’s it for now. There is, of course, much more to this song than meets the eye of this short post. But one thing is for sure: it is a brilliant story that deeply touches the soul.
At his radio show, Zach Sang said to Sheeran, “You’re one of the greatest storytellers and artists of our generation.” I agree. I’m sure this is not the only time I am going to be talking about one of his songs in this blog. Especially not now that his amazing new album, Divide, is out — if you haven’t yet, please make yourself a favor and go check it out! So many incredible stories! I know I LOVE it!
What universal feeling does your story rely on? What is one memory of a “timeless moment” you have that you could use to evoke such feeling? Please share in the comments bellow!