The thrill of surprise is something that permeates all our pop culture, and that thrill is no greater than when what we are reading, watching or even listening to comes with a twist. Songwriting can be seen as the most condensed mode of the surprise or twist ending, and arguably an area where spoilers hamper our enjoyment a little less. Knowing a song’s lyrical path will diverge at some point usually does little in diminishing our appreciation of sterling song structure, a killer hook, or a powerful vocal delivery. We can go back to a song multiple times without ever really considering its story line, although those who are into that sort of thing will likely appreciate the craft that goes into a concise, well-played twist with little regard of whether that twist is anticipated in advance. Despite this being a list mildly marred by spoiler alerts, the reveals in these songs should do little in keeping us from listening on, whether for the first time or 50.
As Bob Dylan famously wrote of Roy Orbison in Chronicles: Volume One, “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business.” Orbison’s voice, at once omnipotent and vulnerable, has one of its most staggering moments on “Running Scared.” Given the air of tragedy and that Orbison made his name with hits like “Only The Lonely,” it would be easy to expect the song to end on an unhappy note. True to Orbison’s genius, however, “Running Scared,” which sees the narrator on the verge of resignation as his lover is torn between him and the man they had both been running from takes a turn at the 11th hour. The subtlety of the twist is all the more shocking thanks to the way it opposes Orbison’s high drama delivery.
Although some narrative songs can shock with lyrics alone, “Does He Love You” heightens the suspense via musical and vocal changes as the song progresses. What begins with a wide-eyed recitation from Jenny Lewis with simple guitar accompaniment fleshes out to full band as the story unfolds, building up to a tumultuous melody and distorted vocals as we reach the song’s twist and aftermath. This is nothing to discount Lewis’ story of a female friendship being torn apart by adultery. The song reveals itself as deftly as a short story, but the added punch of its musical arrangement ensures a sting that will last for days.
“Lola” received its fair share of controversy back in the day for its twist, which was based on a real-life encounter between Kinks’ manager Robert Wace and the titular character. Throughout the course of the song, listeners learn that desirable Lola is not who she seems, leading to the casual revelation that the narrator is happy to be a man “and so is Lola.” Given the great lack of trans-positivity in the era it was written, “Lola” is a pretty remarkable song in that doesn’t conclude on a derisive note. In doing so, it’s a song made all the better for its twist. More controversial than the twist itself, however, and what ultimately led the BBC to banning the song, was the use of a name brand—Coca-Cola—in the song. Kinks frontman Ray Davies famously had to pause the band’s U.S. tour in order to run home and change the words to “cherry cola” instead.
“The Mercy Seat” is one of Nick Cave’s finest moments, in no small part due to the ambiguity of its twist. On his way to the electric chair, the convicted narrator claims, “I’m not afraid to die,” which could either signify his guilt or admitting that facing his mortality is actually frightening. The song’s bottom line is chilling regardless. If you like your twists more gleeful than sobering, there is always “The Curse of Millhaven” from 1996’s Murder Ballads, featuring quite possibly the most demented little girl in music history as its protagonist.
The twists and turns of adolescent sexual curiosity and awakening laid out in one of the finest singles of the ‘90s. In spite of its voyeuristic angle, Jarvis Cocker’s tale of spying on his secret crush’s older sister when she has boys in her room comes across as perversely sweet once its punch line comes around. Although the song is brilliant itself, its music video is a pretty clever deconstruction of the promo video that features something of a proto-spoiler alert.
While a few songs on this list may take their twist cues from the narrative arcs of short stories, “The Gift” is an actual short story, written by Lou Reed while he attended Syracuse University. Narrated to perfection by John Cale, the unfortunate tale of Waldo Jeffers mailing himself to his long distance sweetheart plays out in all its morbid glory on the left side of the speaker while the Velvets din on in the right. As the tale confirms, nice guys often finish last. But hopefully not all of them get a sheet metal cutter to their head as a result.
Although Common’s “Testify” has a fun enough twist on its own, the video (featuring Empire dame Taraji P. Henson as the wife of the wrongfully accused Wood Harris from The Wire) amplifies the plot by laying out some background information and visualizing the song’s courtroom drama storyline. Both the song and video recast the femme fatale in an urban setting to pearl-clutching results.
The opener from The Divine Comedy’s 1996 chamber music-inspired Britpop hit Casanova has all the touchstones of Neil Hannon’s songwriting: It’s coy, arch, clever, sex-driven, and unconventional. Rarely have songs led on listeners so charmingly, only to end in such destruction (and in this case, the narrator being beaten and mugged in a woodshed). Bonus points go to Hannon for straying from the melody when he arrives at the punch line and for somehow making “there ain’t nothing in the woodshed / except maybe some wood” into a line you can sing along to.
Featuring not one, but two, twists, Harry Chapin’s tale of a lowly plow boy out to win the affections of the local mayor’s daughter is a gripping saga in spite of its eight-and-a-half-minute run time. Twist 1: When the boy finds his mother in the mayor’s arms, the mayor agrees to give the boy his daughter’s hand if he keeps the affair a secret. Twist 2: the mayor disregards his side of the bargain, returning after sending his daughter abroad to further dash the plow boy’s hopes by revealing he is the boy’s father. Even if mayor’s shiftiness is portrayed somewhat in the title—“candor” is a synonym for “honesty,” after all—the song still comes across like a bedtime story you know the ending to but still await the retelling of with bated breath.
The Wailers offer another tale of infidelity, played out in a more good-humored way than Chapin’s entry on this list. “Shame and Scandal” is an oft-covered calypso tune written by Lord Melody and originally performed by Sir Lancelot. Its most well known incarnation is likely a version released by Madness in 2005, but that version lacks the bounce and vigor of this offering from the Peter Tosh-fronted Wailers. Another boy eager for a girl’s hand is repeatedly told by his father, “the girl is your sister but your mama don’t know,” a line that sees something of a reversal come song’s end when the boy’s mother tells him, “your daddy ain’t your daddy, but your daddy don’t know.” It’s a song where the twist need not necessitate enjoyment of the song, although that a song called “Shame and Scandal” is enjoyable at all is a twist in itself.
While most Led Zeppelin fans probably don’t listen to the band for its lyrical content, those who pay close attention may know well of the humorous twist in In Through The Out Door’s “Fool in the Rain.” What could so easily have been just another song about an eager guy being stood up by the object of his affection turns the tables by revealing the poor sucker has been waiting for his date at the wrong location. With a samba-influenced instrumental break and an oft-repeated refrain, the song’s roundabout journey to its punch line excuses anyone who would care to jam out rather than deconstruct the song’s narrative.
This classic album opener track on 1965’s Rubber Soul, conveys its twist in its perfectly Beatles-esque straightforward manner. “Drive My Car” lays out a tale about being promised a chauffer gig by a comely lady who eventually admits she doesn’t have a car yet. But with a bouncy chorus that ends in “beep beep, yeah!” it’s hard to mad about that little white lie.