Hi all! I’m back for another semester of blogging with an old favorite of mine. Today we’re dissecting “First” by Cold War Kids. This indie rock group got its start in California back in 2004, and they have worked their way into our hearts ever since.
“First” was a single released in 2015, stemming from their 2014 album Hold My Home. This piece quickly rose to number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Its overall emotional beat and relatable lyrics make this song incredibly relevant and timeless, earning it a rightful spot on my playlist this week.
“Cheated and lied, broken so bad
You made a vow, never get mad
You play the game, though it’s unfair
They’re all the same, who can compare?
First you lose trust, then you get worried”
Overall, this poem/song opens with a beautifully honest and raw line, making it relatable right off the bat. We have all been cheated out of something: a relationship, an opportunity, a chance — and it breaks us. We make promises to ourselves that we won’t let these stolen moments get to us and continue to “play the game.” That tidbit is relative to the situation: we’ll keep dating or looking for a job or play along at school or work even though we know we won’t get what we want — “it’s unfair.” We have some great end rhymes that tie the song together here: bad/mad; unfair/compare; game/same. Generally, these exact rhymes take away from the overall meaning, making a poem or song sound corny or cliché, but the artists really make the rhymes work for them throughout the song.
In the last line of the song we are introduced to a specific poetic device called a repetend. This is where a particular word or phrase is repeated at various points in the poem. We will see variations of this line as the song goes on. Use of this literary device creates a full circle and a sort of cohesiveness that effectively weaves the title of the song into the lyrics and give it another layer of meaning.
[Verse 1 cont.]
“Night after night, bar after club
Dropping like flies, who woke you up
On the front lawn, sprinklers turned on
It’s not your house, where’d you go wrong?
First you get hurt, then you feel sorry”
This verse is really successful in driving home the overall theme of loneliness and self-deprecation by providing us with these vivid images of desolate places: night, a bar, a club, a front lawn that isn’t yours — these are places one can lose him/herself in easily. These concrete images of flies dropping, and waking up on a front lawn to sprinklers going off, effectively convey that isolating feeling of hitting rock bottom. And again, there is a clever incorporation of exact rhymes with “club/up” and “lawn/on/wrong”. But the artists also successful utilize slant rhyme with “night/flies” and “house/hurt.” Then we end with that repetend of “first you___, then you ___”. In this instance, he talks about how we often get hurt and then feel sorry for ourselves — an aspect which I love.
“Flying like a cannonball, falling to the earth
Heavy as a feather when, you hit the dirt
How am I the lucky one?, I do not deserve
To wait around forever when, you were there first
First you get hurt, then you feel sorry”
This chorus is really successful because it plays with quite a few wonderful literary devices. We have this simple, yet effective simile of “flying like a cannonball,” which implies that we are destructive and not always accurate with who or what we are hurting. “Heavy as a feather” is a great line because it plays with opposites. The juxtaposition of heavy and feather really tie into the overall theme of trying to pretend like everything is okay for so long that when the tiniest thing goes wrong, we lose it. In this case, a mere feather is still weighing us down. “Earth/dirt/deserve/first” are all beautiful slant rhymes that lyrically make this chorus one of the most musically pleasing I have ever heard.
“There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite
Call it a dark, night of the soul
Ticking of clocks, gravity’s pull
First you get close, then you get worried”
So we have a lot of major abstractions in this verse: time, life, soul — which are generally considered a detriment in poetry as they are so vast and universal in their meanings that it is hard to pinpoint what exactly the author is trying to convey. However, in the case of this song, the artist makes these abstractions work in their favor because the whole song is kind of an abstraction: we don’t have enough time or life and who knows about those soul things? The overall theme and meaning of the song has already been established so these abstract concepts still work. We get this ticking clock, which is actually playing in the background throughout the whole song as the beat. And gravity is pulling us in to experience these things like life and time and the more we give ourselves to these things, the more we worry. I also love the slant rhymes in here with “time/life/rewrite” and “soul/pull.”
“You’re going silent, the silent treatment
It’s not inviting now, don’t deny what you meant
You get excited, you get excited
You got a feel it, oh, at least you can pretend
You wanna light it, you wanna light it
You wanna light it now, the candle from both ends
You get excited, you get excited”
I think this bridge narrows the song’s meaning down to a broken relationship. When something isn’t going right with the person we love, we often get quiet and give them the silent treatment. But that second line — “It’s not inviting now, don’t deny what you meant” — is beautiful. We can’t take back our words, our actions, our emotions, our reactions — so we mine as well own up to them and continue on. We often get excited about life and it’s sometimes hard to hide; we don’t want to hide our happiness. Here, the author is trying to say that when we do experience highs, we often want to keep it going so badly that we over-do it and “light the candle from both ends.” And of course I have to acknowledge the “silent/inviting/excited/light” and “treatment/meant/pretend/ends” rhymes as they really make this a wonderful bridge.
“First you get close, then you get worried” x4
“You wanna light it, you wanna light it
You wanna light it now, the candle from both ends” X2
Overall, I think this song rose to popularity because it is catchy as hell, and again, it is extremely relatable. The execution, as well, is flawless. The singer’s raw voice and the drums symbolizing a heart beat/ticking clock throughout pull us in (like the gravity continually mentioned). We are lost in the music, recalling our past mistakes and broken relationships for an emotional three minutes and 20 seconds.
And that, my friends, is the power of a masterful poem and song.
— Haley Renison, Asst. Managing Editor