Listening to these two songs is a great way to hear how the song themes can be the same, but written in two very different ways.
We’ll take a listen to the single co-writers Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Lindsey and Ashley Gorley called “His Hands” and the 1993 single from Janis Ian’s ‘Breaking Silence’ album “His Hands.”
Consistent Song Themes
Both songs are about how a relationship shifts from one of deep love and commitment on the speaker’s part, to abusive.
Both have a single focus on the man’s hands and their relationship to the speaker. However, the Ian song talks about a change in the speaker throughout the course of the song, while the Nettles/Lindsey/Gorley song focuses on the change in the hands of the man – and the speaker’s realization of the change.
Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Lindsey & Ashley Gorley
The Nettles/Lindsey/Gorley song starts with a memory – looking back at a moment when the speaker fell for him. And, in the first chorus, there’s no indication of a problem. It simply sets the “I was in love with a gentleman” storyline in the first verse. It’s positive.
What “his hands” represent is changed by the verse, and the songwriters do an excellent job of shifting this by starting the second verse with “Told me things would be different leaving church that Sunday” – pulling church into it – brilliant.
You immediately know that whatever he did was wrong, without the songwriters spelling out whatever might have happened the night before. This is a great example of when to know which area of detail to provide to the listener.
Where Janis Ian focuses immediately on the issue in the first chorus, this song uses the verse to bring it up.
Told me things would be different leaving church that Sunday,
But the only change comin’ were the quarters in the ashtray.
And I – shouda’ known better
When the last three times he swore that he would never
Lay another finger on me, but the truth’s on my face.
[Now THAT is good writing]
So when the second chorus occurs “His hands felt like thunder on my skin . . .” means something very different, as does the “silence” in the last line, shifting from calm silence to a feeling of being trapped. All brought about by the scene of the second verse. Really well done lyrically.
Breaking The Rules Well
I LOVE that this song breaks one of the most sacred of rules: don’t write a song that makes the singer look bad. It’s written in first person and never shies away from being the central character of the song.
Yes, Jennifer Nettles wrote it, and sings it, but it doesn’t mean it happened to her. Who knows where the inspiration came from.
It does mean she recognizes something others should speak up about, and knows crafting a great song, using her vocal gift and taking advantage of her presence in the industry can help bring a very real issue to the ears of those who may need to hear it or can help someone they know.
The bridge actually emphasizes this, and goes the next step of addressing a “you” – and seems to speak from experience.
A brave song for the songwriters, and a brave, meaningful step for Nashville music.
“His Hands” sung by Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark
Janis Ian “His Hands”
Ian’s song is a verbal explanation of how “his hands” ended up being the way they were. The speaker doesn’t forgive it, but uses the journey through the lyric to understand why she was drawn to him – but could never see who he really was.
The speaker never gives him an excuse – just recants what has happened, as well as her own confusion and remorse over how this happening to her.
The chorus’s first let let’s you know the situation immediately: “His hands, they never hit me sober . . .” She also speaks directly to the listener in the third verse, using the bridge as the man’s voice, giving you a clear insight into the fact that he will never change.
Interesting that Ian described his hands as lightning and the wind, while the Nettles/Lindsey/Gorley song went with thunder.
Janis Ian’s “His Hands” from her album ‘Breaking Silence’