I Think That You’re Puttin’ Me On
First of all, with no description, have some morning soul and listen to ”The World Beyond” from Swamp Dogg’s[*] 1970 debut, Total Destruction To Your Mind. You can let the chorus just kinda wash over you, but pay attention to the rest of the lyrics. Trust me.
God Damn that is bleak. It’s also the best sci-fi/fantasy song I’ve ever heard. (Although that might be because I don’t really listen to much metal or prog rock or what have you.)
Now, I said to not worry about the chorus too much because I couldn’t make it out the first time I listened to the song, and I think missing it at least the first time actually strengthens the concept. The ideas comes upon you gradually that way.
But, chorus or no, “The World Beyond” is an amazingly written song, which feels like a strange thing for me to say. I’ve listened to so much rap music for so long that it’s always kind of hard for me to praise the lyrics in other genres, not because I listen exclusively to Lyrically Lyrical Scientifical Real Hip-Hop,[**] which I don’t, but just because my frame of reference for what lyrics are, what they do, and even how many of them there are in a bar of music is so different. All of that said, “The World Beyond” is hauntingly well-written, using scant lyrics and long pauses to leave all sorts of gaps in the imagery; pieces of emptiness where the listener’s imagination can crawl in and move around.
A lot of songs from this time played around with the idea of nuclear war and what, if anything, would come after it, but Swamp Dogg builds a whole hazy post-apocalyptic world from that. He doesn’t just suggest the absence of both technology and nature, but gives, with the simple questions a child is asking his father, hints at what a twisted thing humanity has become. “Did children stand up all alone?” and “Did children look different from me?” are darkly tantalizing in what they suggest and what they leave out. That’s what moves the song from “nuclear war is bad” to genuine science fiction.
But what really makes “The World Beyond” so different is that it’s a science fiction soul song, and that’s just strange. Sure, Parliament Funkadelic and those that came after would bring strange sci-fi sensibilities to funk music, but there’s something special about how old school this song sounds. This is that gospel-influenced, old-fashioned southern soul, where the sound of the singer’s voice can be the most wrenching thing imaginable. Usually these kinds of singers employ that quality to sing, so effectively, about how someone left them, or about their own uncontrollable lust. Sometimes they delve into politics, religion, family, or any number of other things. But I never, ever, heard someone use that soulful, painful quality to embody the radioactively disfigured child of a WWIII survivor, broken by solitude.
When he sings “Were people as lonely as me?” it’s not just good writing, you can feel his voice in your bones. Swamp Dogg may not be describing something as obviously familiar and relatable as relationship problems, like O. V. Wright’s “Let’s Straighten it Out,” another favorite, but he comes just as close to getting me choked up.
So go buy some Swamp Dogg records. For real. He’s amazing.
** If you don’t know what the hell this is supposed to mean, don’t worry about it too much. There are rap fans who take too much pride in being into a very shallow kind of complexity, and that’s what I’m distancing myself from.