About “Robot Man”
Like “Grandfathers”, a podcast was also an inspiration for “Robot Man.” I can’t remember the exact episode of the TED Radio Hour I was listening to, and I haven’t been able to find it, but I know it touched on cyborgs. Modifying the human senses, body, brain, or voice with technology is not strictly the stuff of fantastic science fiction. It is simple reality, and biotech–as people like Elon Musk are wont to remind us–is likely the field of the future.
The notion that we strive for a better self, whether as a collective or as individuals, and that we are dissatisfied with the current self, fit well with the theme of the album. The song that came from my musings functions as a kind of companion piece to “Grandfathers”, and it serves as a slight change in the tone of the album up to this point.
If I were a robot man
I think I’d give myself new eyes.
I’d use them to see into
the dusty halls of time.
Looking back I’d seek your face
among the paintings on the wall.
I might find you in
some unnatural pose
made to conform to
an ideal no one knows.
I might see it in your face—
in an incidental line—
that would show up more in time.
If I were a robot man
I think I’d just replace my mind
with one that was fast and true—
the only one of its kind.
I know I’d figure a new way
to clear the dust from what has been.
I might find things
no one else has known—
like a doorway
through which no one has gone.
I might see the
very end of time
where paint and canvas
give way to a new mankind.
If I were a robot man…
some kind of robot man…
It should go without saying that this song can’t be taken at face value. Being a “robot man” is just an imaginary means to create a new self, whether as an individual, or as a people.
The first kind of robot man I’d be here is one with eyes that permit me to overcome my limitations in time. Instead of being a static captive in time, like the subject of a painting, I would be free to observe it, to look and move through it in any direction I please.
If I were to look back through the “hall of time,” I would see the way we have failed to achieve an ideal despite our best attempts to define one. We can imagine this in the many subtle falsehoods of a portrait, such as the awkward idealized figure, or the painter’s chosen focus. But we may also see it in what we incidentally include in such representations: faults revealed in hindsight. It would become apparent that every time we try to define an ideal we fall short because we just can’t see what we can’t see.
Ironically, I wouldn’t be content to simply observe these imperfections; instead I’d seek to understand the things that have gone before as no one ever has. If I could just change myself more deeply than at the level of perception, change who I am at the level of understanding and identity, I could then achieve unprecedented things. With a new mind I’d be able to do what no one else could, understand who we fundamentally are, and ultimately introduce a truly new mankind. This mankind would not be limited by time and space, or sense and wit.
In the context of the album, we are here confronting the futility of seeking change and absolute resolution. We apparently cannot capture the essence of a thing, we cannot clearly understand our past, present, or future selves, and things have always been that way. Maybe they always will be that way. Though the song doesn’t say as much, its tongue-in-cheek message hobbles the optimism of the lyrical and musical tone.
These ideas have already shown up, and they will be continually explored as we move on through the album. While “Robot Man” is slightly more impersonal than, say, “Grandfathers”, I felt it was important to lift the listener out a little bit at this point, both lyrically and musically.
What You’re Hearing
The main structures of this song came pretty fast. Not all of them shape up so quickly, but it is a relief when they do. The lyrics and music mostly developed together. From the very start I had that basic chord movement from G to Eb7 (I to bVI), and then I really just puzzled out the chord progression and melody by ear. I tend to be a little more dominant than that in writing a song, but in this case I basically imagined or hummed the roots of the chord progression as I was working it out, imagining the sound of the next chord in the sequence, and then figured out what that chord would be by playing the guitar.
The song just wanted to meander, apparently, and so it ended up modulating from G major/em to F major/dm and back. Overall, that meandering via borrowed chords gives the song the feeling of forward movement, almost like you are walking along the hall of time to uncover something. I felt that it needed some kind of relief from the wandering, and so I added the “arrival” at the very end with a new chord progression and different feel.
I initially wrote the song in about an hour or two, and then recorded a rough version of it right away. In that initial recording, as I layered parts (at the time, just guitar, voice, shaker, piano, glock, and vocal harmonies, I think) I had the monitor speakers on in the room when I was recording. This ended up layering all the tracks on one another at slightly misaligned times, which created a kind of slap-back reverb effect. It was a silly accident, but charming in its own way. It felt like the natural reverb in a hallway. Fitting, I thought. When doing the final version of the song, I mentioned that to Clyde (the great audio engineer I was privileged to work with), and he did a grown-up’s job of conveying that feel through careful mixing, I think.
I sat on my initial recording for a while, debating whether to use it as the final one, but eventually decided to re-record it. At that point I settled on using my old Harmony archtop guitar, I decided to add in some brass, suspended cymbal, and second verse harmonies, and chose to include some bongos drummed with mallets at the end. When the recording was done, I sat on it for a while, unhappy. After about a month, I had the inspiration to add some extra piano parts. This resulted in the middle piano (sans guitar) section and the other vamping piano parts. I also added what I affectionately think of as mariachi trumpet parts at the end. It has a celebratory effect, I think…
All in all, I think this song could make a great music video. A character moving through a hall and emerging, at the end, through an uncovered door into a blinding white light only to soar up into the sky on wings like Daedalus’. Paper cut outs or stop action clay, maybe.
Thanks for listening, as always!