Tim Minchin’s latest musical offering, Come Home (Cardinal Pell), released online on February 16, is provoking strong reactions around Australia (as well as the Vatican) because of its blunt and direct message to Cardinal George Pell.
The song addresses calls for Cardinal Pell to return to Australia to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The inquiry has accepted a report from Pell’s doctors that says the cardinal is too ill to fly to Australia to give personal testimony.
Cardinal Pell’s office released a statement earlier today stating that Minchin has given “incorrect information” about his participation in the royal commission, saying,
The Cardinal is anxious to present the facts without further delays.
Essentially, Come Home Cardinal Pell is a protest song, a genre with a long and proud history of motivating social change. Where delivery by prose would merely constitute fighting words, the garb of song gives the message malleability. In this case, the blunt-force attack becomes humorous, playful and spiteful all at once.
To give just a sense of the lyrics, Minchin sings:
I know what it’s like when you feel a little shitty
You just want to curl up and have an itty bitty doona day
But a lot of people here really miss you Georgie
They really think you oughta just get on a plane
(Just get on a plane)
Whether or not you agree with the sentiments expressed throughout the song, it’s worth looking at it from a purely mechanical point of view. There are reasons it “works” that have nothing to do with the scathing critique of Cardinal Pell – a political issue that this article is not trying to address.
The mechanics of musical sarcasm
Analysing music is another way of knowing music and, therefore, another potential way of loving it. While engaging in analysis is in no sense a pre-condition for enjoying music, it can be a fascinating process to think about why and how a particular song works.
Minchin’s overall approach is compelling. He underscores sarcastic and bitter lyrics with a sweet, almost romantic musical language. There’s an ironic relationship between text and sound; the acerbic nature of the lyrics is offset by a beautiful, even poignant use of musical elements.
How does he pull off this sarcastic-yet-beautiful trick? Mainly through the sophisticated use of harmony and melody to throw the meaning of the lyrics into emotional relief.
The familiar and standard chord progressions relate in the first instance to piano-based pop (but also to classical music). In an era dominated by increasingly electronic forms of sound production, the simplicity and emotional directness of the Piano Man model is refreshing.
Minchin foreshadows the crux of the musical argument by encapsulating its most important element at the very beginning: the chord progression in the opening piano solo. That solo piano progression comes back in a magnified form during the emotionally charged choruses.
Something very small but very important happens here. The very first piano figuration stretches upwards, almost sweetly, only to fall some distance to a pair of pitches that turn out not to “belong” to the darkly tinged second harmony, but then resolve upwards into that darker harmony.
In other words, the very first two chords establish a sense of light and dark.
This tonal ambiguity is what makes love songs so attractive to insecure teenagers – the music reflects hope and fear at the same time.
Indeed, Minchin makes the opening sound like a pensive love song. Here begins the sarcasm:
It’s a lovely day in Ballarat
I’m kicking back, thinking of you
And how else should Minchin begin his attack? Words cut more when delivered through a smile, or in this case when embroidered into a relatively saccharine harmonic language.
Overtones and undercurrents
Throughout the first verse you’ll notice the chords don’t change all that much. Harmonically, he treads water, getting through text, keeping harmonic interest on the back-burner.
The verse ends with the almost endearingly gentle suggestion that:
a lot of people here really miss ya, Georgie – They really think you oughta just get on a plane … just get on a plane!
This is all in aid of preparing for a gut-punching chorus. After the suspended feel of the verse, we finally get the chord progression from the beginning again, referring strongly to the “home” key (called the tonic) while literally suggesting the cardinal come home:
Come home Cardinal Pell, I know you’re not feeling well
And being crook ain’t much fun
Even so, we think you should
Come home, Cardinal Pell
Come down from your citadel, it’s just the right thing to do
They have a right to know what you knew.
While the bass guitar and piano had been providing longer and more sustained support through the verse, they adopt a crisper sound in the chorus for contrast. The piano vamp especially gives it energy.
Melodically, Minchin combines his main point (“Come home, Cardinal Pell”), with the most interesting part of the song vocally. There are two features – he substantially widens the range of notes being used, and uses strategically placed “wrong” notes.
By widening the range, there are more melodic leaps for him to manage. Leaping to or from a note creates more expression (think Somewhere, Over the Rainbow). I’m not sure there’s a simple reason for that, but you can hear it working here.
There’s a big downward leap after “Come home”; isolating those two words gives them a slightly emphatic (nagging?) quality. Then the line ascends again on its way to “Pell”. And it’s this note in the chorus that probably defines the whole song.
The harmonic and melodic change on “Pell” shifts the musical colour from light to dark. Minchin doubles the emotional impact of that darker turn by having the vocal melody land on a note that doesn’t match the underlying harmony, just like the opening piano solo (here, on “Pell”). This, of course, is called dissonance in musical terms.
Dissonances usually get resolved in harmonically traditional music, often involving naught but a small adjustment by one melodic step. It’s always great if dissonances don’t resolve of course, because then the listener’s attention is stretched further in time.
So instead of resolving “Pell” by step, Minchin elides it with “I know you’re not feeling well” via another large downward leap, essentially repeating the first shape of the chorus a bit lower.
The tension created by the large leaps and dissonant notes in the first part of the chorus is balanced and ironed out by a more conventional melodic shape and harmonic sequence for the second. This progression is so good that we get to hear it twice each chorus.
Minchin also uses lyrics creatively. Rather than rhyming “bell” with the obvious “Pell”, “Minchin instead works in "Pellian knell”.
In many of his songs, Minchin keeps listeners on their toes by avoiding a square relationship between lyric and music, often by overlapping the text across two major sections of music.
These four lines, for example, straddle the two very distinct halves of the chorus, with “home” finishing the text of the previous section, but providing the important first beat of the new section:
Perhaps you just need some sun
It’s lovely here, you should come
Home, you pompous buffoon
The faux-yearning imitative counterpoint provided by the bassist and drummer, especially on “you pompous buffoon”, highlights the logic of transforming bald insults into art – because it’s beautiful, they can somehow get away with it.
This technique allows Minchin to build a crescendo of verbal robustness. Sneaking “scum” in right at the end of the second verse is brilliant – the immediate switch into chorus mode brings the focus back to the music.
And while “scum” might seem to be pushing things on the personal front, it’s also nothing we haven’t heard from Australia’s eminent political leaders before (it also rhymes with “come”, which may have been the real consideration here).
But “scum” has another function. Boosting the rude factor in the second verse paves the way for the ensuing taunt climax: the simultaneously blasphemous and emasculating “goddamn coward” line that comes at the very end of the bridge.
The entire bridge is familiar Minchin. You could read the whole thing as prose and not sense song-worthiness anywhere (apart from one rhyme):
I want to be transparent here, George, I’m not the greatest fan of your religion, and I personally believe that those who cover up abuse should go to prison. But your ethical hypocrisy, your intellectual vacuity, and your arrogance don’t bother me as much as the fact that you have turned out to be such a goddamn coward.
This fluidity is again underpinned by harmonically wandering music; not letting itself find the stability of the “home” chord, so that the lyrics can be focused on more clearly.
There’s a slightly soaring quality to the second half of the bridge. After building up the tension before “goddamn coward”, the drums, bass and piano drop out for a moment to allow the weight of the sentiment to cut through.
Drums re-enter to reinforce the word “coward”, Minchin drops a glissando on the piano, and the expected harmony (the one from the chorus) is actually denied.
Instead, we get a long stepwise-bass progression, gospel-style Hammond organ appearing from somewhere in the background, and another build-up. Resolution denied, anticipation growing. We are really ready for that chorus again!
Lyrically, he’s suggesting the cardinal should return to “face the music, the music” as the tension rebuilds. Musical expectations are thwarted yet again as Handel’s 235-year-old Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah gets a cameo, as if “face the music, the music” had given him the idea of quoting some recognisably famous “music”.
The texture thins out to just one line for “If the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”, highlighting the joke, but also because that’s what the original Handel chorus does at that line. From an atheist’s perspective, it also highlights the “if” of the proposition, a pretty obvious challenge to the perceived integrity of the song’s target. To top it off, Minchin raises his eyes heavenward.
After this, we’ve earned the chorus again, which we are treated to by a bearded god-possibly-santa-Minchin singing in his best imitation of basso profundo. Minchin here is barely able to take himself seriously. The ridiculousness helps soften the blow he’s just delivered.
The Hammond organ returns for the gospel-choir feel of the lyrics that talk of time running out for atonement and the Lord’s forgiveness.
Finally, the song returns to piano solo and voice only as Minchin concludes by speculating as to the legal implications of his song, almost hopefully suggesting that perhaps the cardinal will at least come home to sue him.
By emblazoning his lyrics onto a musical fabric, Minchin gives his rhetorical argument the advantage of making people want to sing and dance along.
Come Home (Cardinal Pell) is a prime example of the power music has to project a political message into the public sphere. Tim Minchin’s songcraft is direct yet sophisticated, artfully constructed and undeniably catchy.
There are probably thousands of earworm-afflicted people all over the country today, each infected by the latest Minchin chorus.