ONCE upon a time, music was filled with storytellers and poets. The Beatles, Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and more wove tales about characters through their music. Their songs told tales about heartbreak, love and much more.
Some of the best songs don’t simply entertain. They are driven by powerful narratives that tell an actual story. Whether it's a humble confession or a sweeping artistic vision, the notion of setting nakedly expressed emotion to music is relatively new.
The ancient roots of songwriting were far more functional: to tell the news, to preserve the details of significant historical events, and, above all, to pass on interesting stories.
Conway Twitty’s Don’t Cry Joni spoke of finding love a little too late, and 1960’s teenage tragedy song Tell Laura I Love Her popularised by Ray Peterson tugged at our heartstrings about an ill-fated love that ends in a tragic car crash.
Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody waxed lyrical about a guilty man who’d committed murder and was afraid of retribution while Eminem rapped about a mentally unstable fan.
There are many songs that tell a great story. But very rarely does a story burst forth in songs and poems. Author Kwame Alexander has done the latter with his book Solo.
When 2015 Newberry Medal award-winner Alexander along with co-author Mary Rand Hess penned Solo, music and lyrics became the focal point of the extraordinary Young Adult novel.
“I wanted to write a book that was a tribute to the songs that defined my high school years,” he said. “I also wanted to write a love story.”
A fan of ’80s classics and soft rock bands, including Tears for Fears, he said: “Music is what I listen to when I’m writing. It gets my creative juices going. It allows me to brainstorm. Music makes me feel good, which is what I want to do when I’m writing books. I want to make my readers feel good. It’s empowering.”
The music so far
Told entirely in verse and song lyrics, Solo is a story full of love, loss, addiction and music.
Solo tells the story of 17-year-old Blade Morrison, son of troubled rock star Rutherford Morrison. Surrounded by an opulent lifestyle thanks to his father, Blade deals with the loneliness and emptiness that all the new cars, money and fame can’t remedy.
With scathing tabloid press, an addict father who’s desperately trying to make a comeback and regain his former fame, and a sister struggling to get out of their father’s shadow, Blade has to navigate through these issues and more.
Haunted by the memories of his mother who died when he was just nine, and his father’s washed-up legacy, Blade is left to figure out life on his own.
He’s not alone in his struggle as he’s got the friendship of a jazz-musician mentor, Robert, the love of his girlfriend Chapel, and his music. But then life throws him an unexpected curveball and Blade is caught in an emotional tailspin.
A deeply protected family secret — one that opens up a chasm between him and his family, and has him questioning his own identity — is uncovered. At the same time, the love of his life breaks his heart.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Blade decides the only way he’ll understand his past and move forward into an uncertain future is to find out the truth of his identity.
He sets out on a journey that will change everything he thought to be true. His quest lands him in a remote dusty village in Ghana where he discovers new friendships and at the same time, sets into motion a reconciliation he never expected.
We’ve been so used to believing that the greatest stories live in books, but nothing could be further from the truth. Any artistic discipline can be used for great storytelling and one of the best is music and poems.
When we listen to the lyrics of a great song or the prose of a poem, they become ingrained in our minds and for a brief moment, they become a part of us. And the authors have captured all that in this magnum opus of a book.
With intricacy, intimacy, and poetic style, Alexander and Hess explore what it means to finally come home. This rich novel in verse is full of the music that forms its core. In addition to Alexander and co-author Hess’ skilled use of language, references to classic rock songs abound.
Solo has all the ingredients of a great song — love, heartbreak, family, redemption. And the book’s lyrical prose allows us to
be flooded by the emotions and intensity that music and lyrics bring to the table. It’s
a book. It’s a story. It’s also pure poetry —
and something we’ll not forget in a long while.
What’s Hot: Sometimes poetry, lyrics and song tell a story better than pure narrative. The beauty of Alexander’s story is the fact that the poetry doesn’t subtract from the story. There’s something about poetry that adds depth to any narrative.
What’s Not: It’s rare but I can’t find anything I dislike about the book. A poetic exploration of an intense story makes it on my personal best-read list. Solo makes me want to listen to rock & roll and spout poetry. All at once.
Authors: Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers