Whenever you hear a song that seems like it has more going on beneath the surface, it’s often instantly intriguing. Blatant, obvious music can be great, but songs with descriptive lyrics, or a deeper meaning, can be a much more enriching to experience. So here are our favorite songs with figurative language.
Best Songs with Figurative Language
Let’s begin with the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel
It should come as no surprise that Simon and Garfunkel’s stirring and heartfelt ballad won a slew of awards following its release in 1971, and it is still considered the folk duo’s signature song.
Composed primarily by Paul Simon, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” takes the form of a vow in which the narrator promises his loyalty and self-sacrifice to a friend or lover. The narrator promises to always be there for them during difficult times and to do whatever it takes to help.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a song about wanting to help, and it takes as it’s central metaphor the idea of a “bridge over troubled water,” laid out to smooth the path through chaos. “Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down,” Art Garfunkel sings in the first refrain. No image could paint a clearer picture of the narrator’s willingness to make himself vulnerable for his loved one in times of difficulty.
The soaring orchestral arrangement coupled with demanding vocals performed spectacularly by Garfunkel give this song a hymn-like quality that helps to express many of the sentiments we both hold for and need from the people we love the most, but what makes this song so brilliant is it’s humanity.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was composed in the wake of uncertain times. As the tumultuous decade of the sixties was coming to a close, Simon and Garfunkel’s musical partnership was threatened by personal conflict, and from this period of chaos, they produced the stunning anthem of empathy and selflessness that everyone needed to hear.
Happiness by Molly Drake
Molly Drake is perhaps best known for the influence she had on the artistry of her son, Nick Drake, who would make a name for himself as a folk singer-songwriter in the 1960s before his tragic suicide in 1974, but she was a great musician and poet in her own right, even if her work did not garner any recognition until after her death in 1993.
In common with many of Molly Drake’s compositions, “Happiness” is both introspective and poetic as it tackles a difficult concept: happiness itself. Throughout the song, Drake uses several metaphors to describe happiness, comparing it to “a bird with twenty wings”, “a butterfly upon an April morning”, and a “Jack-O-Lantern in the night.” Each of these images embodies the qualities she ascribes to happiness: it is beautiful, but elusive, delicate, and fleeting, and most of all, it must be approached with care.
Molly Drake does not sound particularly happy when singing this song. She sounds thoughtful and sober, and that’s because she’s dealing with a complicated subject. Happiness may be a universal experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find or even to describe. Like a bird or a butterfly, it’s difficult to grasp, both figuratively and literally. Drake uses these images because they help to make an abstract concept a bit more tangible and familiar.
You’re the Cream in My Coffee by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra
What better way is there to tell someone you love them than to call them the cream in your coffee?
Jack Hylton’s popular song “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” originally came from the 1928 musical Hold Everything, and it’s all about finding creative ways to tell someone how much they mean to you, which can be a challenge. In fact, this song comes with its own disclaimer in which the narrator admits his own ineptitude for the task: “Most men tell love tales / And each phrase dovetails / You’ve heard each known way / This way is my own way.”
The narrator acknowledges that there are many more poetic and romantic clichés out there, but none of them are quite right for describing his own love. Instead, he comes up with his own string of metaphors to tell his loved ones what they mean to him. He sings, “You’re the cream in my coffee / You’re the salt in my stew / … / You’re the starch in my collar / You’re the lace in my shoe.” He comes up with a number of other unique metaphors throughout the song, but they all say essentially the same thing: “I need you.”
This song teaches us how figurative language can come in handy. When we want to tell someone how much they mean to us, we often find that clichés are not enough. It helps to bolster our declarations love with metaphors that come from the heart, and sometimes the best way to let someone know how you feel is to compare them to cream in your coffee.
This song has also been covered by numerous other artists over the years, most notably Ruth Etting and Nat King Cole.
You Are the Sunshine of My Life by Stevie Wonder
Speaking of romantic metaphors, Stevie Wonder delivers a few of his own in his 1972 pop hit “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
Sung by Wonder and Lani Groves (and Jim Gilstrap, who sings the first two lines), “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” explores the romantic devotion between two lovers, who refer to one another as “the sunshine of my life” and “the apple of my eye.” The main theme of this song seems to be the constancy of their love.
Wonder’s narrator promises that their love will last forever and that they will always be together because they need each other. That’s why he describes his lover as his own personal sunshine. What image could better embody the feelings of warmth, light, and sustenance a lover can give us?
Songs like this show that as a songwriter, Stevie Wonder understands the need for originality in language, and this takes on an even greater importance in love songs. A million songs have said “I love you,” but only one has said “You are the sunshine of my life,” which is a far more evocative and descriptive declaration of love.
Meanwhile, the smooth bossa nova rhythm gives this song a cool, easy-going feel that adds to its calm and contented theme. In essence, Wonder creates a very original and pleasing love song without falling back on too many old clichés. This is piece of music that anyone can enjoy!
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Beautiful Cosmos by Ivor Cutler
In his moving 1976 song, “Beautiful Cosmos,” Scottish poet, humorist, and musician Ivor Cutler muses on the finest aspects of a mature friendship, using celestial metaphor to describe the relationship between two friends.
Ivor Cutler sings that he and his friend are their own “little worlds,” the cups of tea they share are their universe, and between them, there is “a beautiful cosmos.” This is a brilliant way to encapsulate the feelings of belonging and fulfillment that come from a true friendship. When you find someone with whom you share a powerful bond, it really does feel like an entire cosmos has formed between you out of all the private jokes, memories, and moments you have shared with one another.
Perhaps the most resonate moment of the song comes in the second verse, where Cutler sings, “What do we talk of whenever we meet? / Nothing at all.” Here, he breaks his pattern of figurative language and speaks literally, and it’s a beautiful way to portray a timeless truth about old friends. Often, they transcend the need for language. You know you have found a true friend when you can sit in silence together and understand each other perfectly.
As a poet, Cutler has already mastered figurative language, and he recognizes its usefulness in describing the indescribable, but in this song, he seems to deconstruct it, capturing a situation in which no language is necessary. Communication is so easy and natural that nothing needs to be said. Companionable silence is enough.
This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) by Talking Heads
In one of their most memorable pieces, Talking Heads give us yet another elegant musing on the complexity of human connection.
David Byrne composed “This Must Be the Place” shortly after falling in love with model and actress Adelle Lutz, whom he would go on to marry, and the song captures a moment of self-discovery. The narrator of this song compares finding the person he loves to finding his home, and this is a profoundly powerful image. For most of us, home is much more than a place. It is a symbol of comfort, familiarity, and belonging. For Byrne, it is a person who makes him feel safe.
“This Must Be the Place” represents an uncharacteristic moment for Talking Heads. Most of their music reflects a general attitude of cynicism, warning against the dangers of love, but in this song they concede that love can be beautiful. And the narrator seems just as surprised as anyone else to find so much romance on a Talking Heads album. “I guess I must be having fun” and “I guess this must be the place,” sings Byrne.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in these moments. The narrator is experiencing a feeling of joy and contentment that he neither expects nor recognizes. He has surprised himself with his capacity for love and warmth, and the paradoxical pairing between the danger of venturing onto new grounds and the familiarity of home is what produces the conflict in this song and saves it from getting too sappy or cliché.
“This Must Be the Place” is a love song about risking the unknown and finding something that feels safe and familiar. It is subtitled “naïve melody,” and lyrically the naiveté comes from the narrator, who seems to be traveling onto uncharted territory by embracing romance so wholeheartedly, but it’s actually even more literal. While recording this song, the members of the band switched instruments, meaning that they too were venturing onto unfamiliar grounds, and the result is something beautiful.
Willow by Taylor Swift
In her 2020 acoustic hit, “Willow,” Taylor Swift uses figurative language liberally to describe how a life can be changed and guidance by a single relationship.
In “Willow,” a woman addresses her lover, detailing the ways in which she has surrendered to him. “I’m like water when your ship rolled in that night / Rough on the surface, but you cut through like a knife,” she sings. This is only the first image in song, and it’s a very potent one. The narrator compares herself to a wild water and her lover to the ship captain that has conquered her waves.
From this image alone, we understand that this song is about a woman who, despite any previous reluctance she may have had, has decided to submit fully to her lover. The hook of song, “Life was willow and it bent right to your wind,” furthers conveys the ease with which the narrator yields to her lover. It also makes it clear that this isn’t a tragedy about someone losing themselves to an overly dominant partner.
The narrator’s submission is in fact an act of liberation from herself and her former unwillingness to accept guidance. Swift chooses her images carefully, selecting ones which convey a sense of peace. The relationship described is one of trust and reciprocity.
Virtually every line in this song involves some degree of figurative language, and that’s what gives its poetic qualities. Swift doesn’t just tell us how this relationship makes her narrator feel. She shows us through a series of powerful and evocative images.
Take Me to Church by Hozier
In contrast, Irish singer-songwriter Hozier deals with some of the darker aspects of romance and sexuality in his song, “Take Me to Church.”
“Take Me to Church” takes the form of an extended metaphor in which the narrator compares a passionate romantic relationship to a religious experience. His lover is the goddess he must appease, and her body is the alter at which he worships her. Through this metaphor, Hozier highlights the power of romantic love, which can be just as fervent as religious ecstasy, and just like religion, it can lead us toward darkness as easily as it can lead us toward light. Hozier references sin, sacrifice, and submission, all things common to both religion and sex.
Hozier said that this song was inspired by his own frustrations with organized religion and its restrictive views on human sexuality, and through this song, he sanctifies carnal love, imbuing it with its own spiritual significance, and he enhances the effect of his lyrics with a soulful choral arrangement reminiscent of a gospel choir.
The music video, which was directed by Brendan Canty and Conal Thompson, deals specifically with the horrific violence faced by much of the gay community around the world. Thus Hozier gives the song to those who need it most: those whose loves are unduly persecuted in the name of religion.
Love is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar
Love isn’t all smooth sailing, and just like Hozier, Pat Benatar focuses on some its less savory aspects in her 1983 hit, “Love is a Battlefield.”
As much as it can be beautiful, love can be brutal, painful, dangerous, and misguided. It can be a battlefield, and that’s the message of this song. In “Love is a Battlefield,” Benatar describes a dysfunctional relationship that seems to cause more pain than pleasure. She questions why her lover hurts her, but she stays with him, seemingly against her will, because she is “trapped” and “chained to [his] side.”
Obviously, isn’t literally true, but it’s a great descriptor of how love can feel sometimes. Very often we stay with people who aren’t good for us only because we don’t know how to live without them. That’s one of the big ironies of love that this song explores.
All of this is summed up succinctly in the chorus: “Love is a battlefield.” Love can be a perilous landscape to navigate, and it takes a strong person to make it through in one piece. There is only one conclusion we can draw from this song: Love is not for the faint of heart, and what better way to warn people of its dangers than by comparing it to a battlefield?
Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan
“Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably Bob Dylan’s most famous song. In fact, some critics have repeatedly called it the greatest song of all time. Ultimately, that’s a matter of opinion, but folk-rock masterpieces like this one gave the Nobel Prize Board a good reason for bestowing their literature prize upon Dylan in 2016.
“Like a Rolling Stone” is a story about a fall from grace. Through a series of surreal images, it tells of woman used to a life of privilege who is suddenly thrust into the real world, forced to reckon with all of the people she previously saw as beneath her, such as “the mystery tramp,” “the jugglers and the clowns,” and “Napoleon in rags,” each of whom represents his own tragedy.
Dylan adopts a rather mocking and spiteful tone throughout this song. We aren’t meant to sympathize with the tragic heroine. We don’t know what brought her to her wretched state, but we know she deserves it. She’s paying the price for her naiveté and entitlement.
The central metaphor of the song compares its subject to “a rolling stone.” Dylan is playing upon the age-old maxim “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” which implies that those who cannot settle will always lack a sense of purpose and success. Dylan uses this cliché deliberately. We’ve all heard this before, and we all know that implies a sense of dislocation and aimlessness, which the woman in the song is experiencing for the first time in her life.
Yet somehow it’s the more the obscure images that hold the most weight. Lines like, “You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat” could mean something very specific. Or they could mean nothing. Or they could mean anything. The famously enigmatic Dylan has never revealed his intentions behind this song, and that’s one of the things that makes it so timeless.
The beauty of figurative language is that individual images carry as many associations as there are people in the world, and Dylan leaves plenty of room for us to interpret the song in the way that most resonates with us.
Each of the songs deals with a powerful emotion. Words like “devotion”, “happiness,” “love,” “friendship”, “lust”, and “loss” are very straightforward, but taken by themselves, they do not capture all the nuances of the human experiences they describe.
That’s why figurative language is so important. It allows songwriters to turn music into poetry and to describe things that would otherwise be beyond language. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but lyricists have only words at their disposal, so they must find ways to paint pictures with language alone. Figurative language isn’t just something we hear – it’s something we see and feel as well.