“Broken Coastline” has been my song for the last 3-4 months. It wrecks me. Maybe there’s a corollary between it being so heartbreaking and the last couple of years being so heartbreaking? Could be. But man, when Peter Bradley Adams strums that mournful guitar, I feel like he’s strumming the strings of my heart.
This song is simple:
A neat and tidy 3:29. Harmonically it’s simple and instrumentally it’s simple. The entire song is built around one acoustic guitar and two voices woven in harmony like ripples from a paddle and tied together by an ambient synth drone that sounds like the folk version of an Indian tanpura.
But my goodness does that drone do a lot. It places the song in a sonic landscape that feels as expansive and exposed as the beach on a winter day. Such a great reminder to all of us songwriters how much power subtle, textural elements can add.
As a connoisseur of visual, descriptive lyrics, the first verse is a fine wine:
I’ve been driving a broken coastline
Holding on to everything I want
I’ve been trying to make this all mine
Pushing faster before the light is gone
You had me at “I’ve been driving a broken coastline.” I’m not even from California, but I picture this song being set there. I believe on “The 1” you can ride the coast all the way from SF to LA. The idea of someone driving “The 1” for hours to visit a fraught love that probably doesn’t deserve them—it’s devastating. It’s specific, it cuts, and most importantly, I can see it in my mind.
As any knockout hook should, the turn at the end of the chorus lands the whole song.
Will there be a place for me
If I can’t drive anymore?
Our pained protagonist asks, would I ever see you if I didn’t trek my ass out here for you? We’ve all had unbalanced relationships. Forsaken affairs where one person was more invested than the other. Maybe you’ve chased a heart that was out of reach? Maybe your love for someone blew away while your partner’s deepened?
If you’re like me, you’ve been on both sides. Neither is great. But my goodness, the former stings. This is masterclass songwriting distilling this familiar feeling into a few agonizing words wrapped in a haunting melody.
Down Like Silver consists of Peter Bradley Adams and Caitlin Canty. These fine song craftspeople remain fairly mysterious. There are no videos of them playing live on YouTube nor is there a music video for this song. But we don’t need to see them to hear the power of their music. And when Peter adds his lower vocal harmony on the second verse, he may have as well added the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As someone who knows the challenges of singing harmony across gender, their blended sound is of the highest caliber.
With Peter dropping his harmony at the top of the second verse, one may infer that with every new section a new layer will join the fray. Lord knows if this was my song, I’d add bass and percussion at the chorus, mandolin, and fiddle at the top of verse 3, and by the end, we’d be in full-fledged everybody-get-on-the-stage-at-the-end-of-the-festival territory. But in this arrangement, the only addition following Peter’s voice is a truly understated (but beautifully recorded) upright bass that is introduced after the first chorus.
This discipline and restraint should be applauded. This is the kind of deeply tasteful music arranging that only greats like T Bone Burnett and Gillian Welch have mastered.
I honestly thought at this point in my life no song built around a strummed acoustic guitar could affect me like this. I thought I was numb to it. But here we are. This song leaves me feeling like I just got out of the water without a towel and the sun is hidden behind clouds.
One element that contributes to this is that “Broken Coastline” is in Ab major, a half-step above the considerably more ubiquitous G. I do believe our ears identify this even if our brains do not.
My writing may be extra, but this song is certainly not. It’s nothing short of perfect. As a songwriter, I feel like I have a lot to learn.