Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
I love key changes in pop music. While they’re positively rampant in musicals, you don’t often find them in the kind of music you hear on the radio. Elton John’s “Bitter Fingers” hasn’t played on most radio stations in 30 to 40 years, but it remains to this day my favorite key change of all time. The song begins with a lilting piano intro that goes into a light, bouncing verse. It seems like a fairly cute and fluffy track. When the chorus hits, everything explodes.
The key changes entirely, the tempo picks up, the guitar comes in and the energy level in John’s vocal delivery goes up about 12 notches. This shift would be good regardless since it’s so sudden, but the added key change makes it even better. An incredibly cool bass line in the chorus doesn’t hurt either.
I can’t describe the shift fully—you just need to go listen to it. If you want, you can imagine the 15-year-old version of me hearing it for the first time and losing my mind completely. (Or, understandably, you can choose to skip that part.)
Lyrically, “Bitter Fingers” tells a pretty straightforward story. The narrator is deeply tired of writing songs on request and of the industry that pats songwriters on the back for producing emotional schmaltz on demand. He declares that he’s sick of the “tra-la-la’s and la-de-da’s” of disingenuous music that he’s producing. It gets difficult when something that you love has been turned into a chore; it’s “hard to write a song with bitter fingers.”
On the one hand, that line is simply the narrator complaining about the situation he’s stuck in. He did not become a musician for this garbage. On the other hand, however, John is admonishing himself. The tone of the verses is exceedingly cynical, and from that regard the chorus can be seen as an antithesis to his bitterness.
Since it is so hard to write a song when one is so bitter, perhaps it’s the narrator’s job to move past that feeling. That line comes in during the chorus, right after the song has shifted. It’s as if the narrator has changed his mind in that moment, and the music changes along with it. Rather than let the attitude of everyone around him bring him down, he fights back by getting even more creative.
“Bitter Fingers” ends with a transition from the chorus into a guitar solo, fading out on the triumphant high of the chorus. The songwriter hasn’t let the nay-sayers stop him from doing his thing.