Should Have Known Better

In my pop music analysis seminar last Wednesday, four of my students presented on harmony and form in four songs that I had chosen. Being a huge Sufjan Stevens fan, I couldn’t help but toss in one of his newest songs along with the more standard Beach Boys and Beatles tracks: “Should Have Known Better,” from the 2015 album Carrie & Lowell.

I chose this song because we had looked over the handout to Mark Spicer’s article, “Fragile, Emergent, and Absent Tonics in Pop and Rock Songs.” In this paper he coins the term fragile tonic, a tonic which is sounded in the song in question, but only weakened somehow, usually weakened by being in inversion. Crucially, a fragile tonic reflects the lyrics in some way, usually a kind of tenderness or vulnerability. One example Spicer uses is Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

“Should Have Known Better” is the second track on Carrie & Lowell, an album that Sufjan has stated was written to help him cope with the death of his mother Carrie (interview here). He had an atypical relationship with his mother, as she had several mental health problems, and left the family when Sufjan was only one year old. After she left, they saw her only sporadically. For a few years, Sufjan lived with her in Oregon, while Carrie was dating Lowell. The lyrics of the album are saturated with references to Carrie and to the state of Oregon, and this track is no exception.

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The song is split in half by an instrumental interlude at 2:38. In the lyrics above, this is after the fifth stanza. In the first half of the song, the lyrics are consistently depressive: “my black shroud” is repeated each stanza, for one example of the tone. The harmony reflects this brokenness by employing the fragile tonic technique. My transcription below gives a harmonic reduction of the chords and a guitar melody. This progression is repeated throughout the introductions, verses, and interludes of the first half of the piece.

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The opening E minor tonic is considerably weakened because it’s in second inversion. There is a root-position i chord in the fourth measure of this progression, but here it’s weakened through the use of an added sixth (you could even argue that this is not a i chord at all, and say instead that it’s a vi7 in first inversion). The succession of the chords also weakens the status of the i chord in measure 4: approaching the tonic chord by root motion down a third makes the first chord (III) sound stronger than the second (iadd6). While the lyrics talk of a stalled or incomplete grieving process, the harmony sounds likewise unsettled.

The chorus (0:55–1:18, 2:15–2:37) modulates to G major for about four measures. The modulation is always set to the words “Be my rest/vest, be my fantasy,” presumably directed toward the mother. G major as tonic is confirmed with multiple IV-V-I progressions. This harmonic motion is much stronger than anything we heard in the verses. This conclusive and common progression might signify the “rest” in the lyrics, and the comfort and stability that a mother can bring.


After an instrumental that begins at 2:38, the lyrics become more positive, communicating an acceptance of what is past, and finding joy in everyday comforts (“the neighbor’s greeting,” “my brother had a daughter,” etc.). The instrumentation is more fleshed out. Before 2:38, there’s only acoustic guitar and vocals. But at 2:38, a rhythmic synth, banjo picking, and quiet synthesized percussion are all added to the texture. The song modulates permanently to G major, and the chord progression becomes quite conventional, like something you would hear in a Bach prelude.

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The student of mine that presented on this piece is a lyricist and songwriter, and she focused more on the melody than the harmonies. She noted that although the new instrumentation, key, and chord progression can make second half of the song sound like an unrelated section, the lyrics clearly tie back to the first half—”I should have known better,” “I should’ve wrote a letter,” and references to “feeling” are present in both halves of the song. The same vocal motive is used every time “I should have known better” appears.

As I examined her detailed melodic transcription, I began to notice more motivic connections beyond this. The melody of the second half seems substantially different than the first on a casual listening, but a little side-by-side comparison reveals more connections. Below I’ve identified several motives in the first E minor half of the song and designated them with a letter.

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The G major half reuses many of these motives. As I already mentioned, the motive continues to head off each stanza, but further, the rest of the melody is also made up of motives from the E minor half, shuffled around:

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Most of these motives are altered when they reappear in the second half. I’ll enumerate what criteria bind each motive together.

  1. Doesn’t really change between the two sections. In the G major section, A tail <G, E> is sometimes appended (a’).
  2. Circles around the pitches A and B, but the goal is B. B begins at the end of the bar and crosses over the barline.
  3. The only motive that uses exclusively long note values. The rhythmic profile is quarter-quarter-half, with the half note on the downbeat of the measure. The high contrast to the rest of the melodic rhythms is enough to bind it together even when the pitches are changed. However, note that the line begins on D and ends on E in both c and c’.
  4. Defined primarily by a long string of syncopated notes and an overall falling contour. The d motive ends on A.
  5. (not used in the second half)
  6. Shared pitch content (if we skip over the pickups), ordering of pitches, and contour.
  7. (not used in the second half)
  8. (not used in the second half)

“Unity despite apparent disjunction” is kind of an old school music-analytical goal. The recycling of materials in any piece of music binds the piece together musically, helps the listener remember the music after only a few hearings, and helps to create catchiness and cohesiveness. But to turn to the poetic, maybe the reshuffling of motivic material  in “Should Have Known Better” is reflecting the shift in perspective that the narrator experiences between the first and second halves. The things being perceived are the same, but the viewpoint changes. The motivic materials are the same, but there is a new ordering and understanding of them.

This is the second track on the album. It can seem strangely placed, because the rest of the songs on this album are entirely depressing. Putting this track so early sounds a bit off-balance. The very end of the track slows way down with long synth chords and distorted piano? guitar? something acoustic.

As I said, I’ve focused on harmony and melody here because that was the focus of the lesson I taught in the seminar. But before I sign off, just a quick word about sound production in this track. It’s phenomenal! Listen to it with headphones. In the first half, the guitar and the vocals are both double-tracked, and one track is directed into each side. It’s as though Sufjan is really inside your brain as you listen to this. For me it really helps me empathize with the lyrics. In the second half as instruments are added, the “sound box” (to borrow Allan Moore’s term) widens, and the different instruments seem to form a semicircle around the front of the listener while Sufjan remains close to the ears. It’s just lovely. Interestingly, I’ve been told by representatives of Sufjan’s record label that he uses very outdated recording equipment—8 tracks and such—and Sufjan does seem to have an affinity for DIY sound sometimes. But the production on Carrie & Lowell is nevertheless exquisite. Give the whole album a good listen.

header image credit: Amy Nolan