Five songs with literary references

Because there are fewer better things in life than the merging of books and music.

Song: Breezeblocks – alt-J

Book: “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

Sample lyrics:

“Do you know where the wild things go?”

“Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole, I love you so.”

You love something so much you’d rather see it destroyed than have it belong to another. If it’s not yours, then it can’t be anyone’s.

“She may contain the urge to runaway, but hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks” is an intensely-black manifestation of this idea. It’s what happens when the darkest part takes over what’s meant to be our brightest thing.

While there’s an underlying darkness to the book, it’s overt in alt-J’s music.

It’s the most extreme version of “love” – when desperation and emotional longing turns dangerously physical. The lyrics alone are a work of genius; the fact they manage to package it up into a brilliant, moody, semi-ballad makes Breezeblocks all the more impressive.

Song: No Sound but the Wind – Editors

Book: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Sample lyric:

“The things you put in your head, they will stay there forever.”

“Help me to carry the fire.”

The droning, slow and almost unnerving march of the piano echoes the plight of the Man and the Boy in McCarthy’s soul-wrenching, post-apocalyptic masterpiece. The beat goes on, steady and methodical, in the same fashion as McCarthy’s protagonists as they journey south in search of safety.

The title is a direct quote from the book, while the vocals are equally melancholic and forlorn. Despite singing the sentiment of “keeping the fire alive together”, Editors frontman Tom Smith sounds tired resigned, just as ‘The Man’ in the novel does.

The lyrics twist some of the best lines from the book into a new shape, while the song taps into the same unsettling feeling of McCarthy’s tale.

Something is coming to break this thing wide open.

In the book, it’s that scene in the basement. In the song, it’s the second chorus, as the keys kick into full gear and Smith’s voice begins its climb.

Song: Song for Clay (Disappear Here) – Bloc Party

Book: “Less Than Zero” by Bret Easton-Ellis

Sample lyric:

“People are afraid to merge on the freeway.”

Bloc Party is the perfect soundtrack for a Bret Easton-Ellis novel. Sometimes smooth and romantic; sometimes harsh and abrasive.

Song for Clay doesn’t so much take quotes from Less Than Zero as it the takes the ethos and the ideas. It’s a re-telling of the story of the young narrator Clay as he struggles with a life of privilege and spirals into drugs and deals with demons.

It’s dark and dirty and menacing. It’s a cry for help in the disguise of a party anthem.

Song: Stuck Between Stations – The Hold Steady

Book: “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac

Sample lyric:

“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”

The Hold Steady – raucous and rollicking and loud and fun – is the perfect band to listen to on a road trip, so it’s fitting they take on the words of Jack Kerouac; the man that provided the official text book for the road trip.

Yes, it’s a song to drink beer to, but it’s a sing along anthem for feeling lost and unfulfilled (see: “Crushing one another with colossal expectations, dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late” and “You’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life”).

While the song takes it’s first two lines from the mouth of Kerouac’s most famous narrator Sal Paradise, it’s really an ode to American poet John Berryman.

During a distinguished career, Berryman taught at the University of Minnesota and committed suicide by leaping into the Mississippi from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.


“The Devil and John Berryman, they took a walk together, and they ended up on Washington talking to the river”


“He was drunk and exhausted, but he was critically acclaimed and respected. He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.”

A long story short – any band that’s able to get two literary references into the one song is doing it right.

Song: If You Really Want To Hear About It – The Ataris

Book: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

Sample lyric:

“Don’t ever tell anyone anything, or else you’ll wind up missing everybody.”

Taking its title from the first line of the novel, the upbeat, chirpy pop-punk sound belies what’s really going on.

It’s a song of longing and nostalgia and isolation and leaving childhood memories behind.

Set in the winter after the last summer, it uses the setting of an abandoned boardwalk as the site for the acceptance of change and transition and what it means to grow up, evoking the epiphany Holden Caulfield’s experiences as he watches his sister ride the carousel at the end of the novel.

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