Certain things are inherently frightening. For example: Rabid dogs, murderous clowns, and Gordon Lightfoot’s 1974 death threat Sundown.
There are 6 particularly scary-ass things about this song, so let’s talk about them in ascending levels of menace. Also, you might as well listen while you read (make sure the kids are outside).
6: The Pre-Chorus Beat
It’s a simple thing. A quick, muffled KUH from the drum kit that signals to you, the listener, that we are plunging back into the by-the-throat message of the chorus. The sheer repitition of the choruses themselves, and this beat by extension, lie at the heart of the narrator’s obsession.
Then there’s the added–and simple–effect of what that KUH means in the context of sundown and the back stair. Is someone knocking? Are they tripping over something? Is the jig up?
To be clear, the overall message of the song (“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you”) is what drives the terror, but it’s little touches like this that create Hall of Fame “oh no” feelings.
5: The Bass
On the subject of that narrator’s obsession, here we have a circular, restless bassline that denotes an equally restless mind (of someone who is going to kill you). While the bass does recede into the background at points, it only reinforces the grim fixation during its inevitable return to the signature phrase again and again and again.
4: The Opening Lyric
Honestly, this song could have achieved 95% of its intended nightmare with the chorus alone. But was that good enough for Gordon? No. He had to make this thing scary as shit, so he opens up with:
I can see her lyin’ back in her satin dress
In a room where you do what you don’t confess
Ok, now at first this could just be a dude being coy about sexy time! But listen to what’s going on with that vocal and the rest of the song. What does he dread confesssing to so much? Is “she” even alive in this image?
Also shoutout to:
I can see her lookin’ fast in her faded jeans
She’s a hard lovin’ woman, got me feelin’ mean
For somehow being one of the chiller lines in this song.
3: Gordon’s Whole Vibe
So it’s obvious that all these elements are interconnected, but the one unifying feature is the incredibly dark energy brought by our main man Mr. Lightfoot.
I don’t actually know that much about him as a person besides that he’s Canadian and has one of those cool, effortless barritones. The rest of the Sundown album generally feels like well made acoustic 70s rock. Dad stuff. He’s wearing sandals on the cover, for chrissakes!
Then Sundown the song starts and those sunny North American woods go dark, pulsating red with the rage of a man scorned (or something).
2: The Fact That It’s In Regular Rotation As Soft Rock
If Sundown had been written and performed by The National in 2009, Tumblr teens would have called it toxic and we’d all have moved on. While all the craft of bad vibes would be there, it would occupy a space that we as a culture have already made for The National songs: Feeling bad for yourself.
Instead, this incredibly somber meltdown was the #1 song in the entire country for a time in 1974. And not just in Easy Listening, though it was also #1 in that. Top spot in the Hot 100. Biggest song in the country and all over Western Civilization, while also being Easy Listening. The 70s make no sense.
As a result, today, in 2020, you can be walking around Wal-Mart or a goddamn AutoZone when suddently, it happens: That bassline starts rumbling around you. The jangly acoustic guitar synching with the flicker of fluroescent lights. Gordon’s voice filling the aisle. The music is louder in the bathroom. There’s nowhere to hide.
1: The Chorus (Obviously)
It’s the heart and soul of the song, which is to say the lyrics are:
Sundown, you better take care
If I find you been creepin’ up my back stair
Very cool! Okay see you later man!
Besides being an overt threat, as previously mentioned, this chorus/refrain is constantly popping up without ever feeling expected or planned. Like the intrusive thoughts of a potentially violent man driven to madness, for example. Or the Cookie Monster! Maybe it’s a metaphor for that!
In terms of lyrics, the word “Sundown” is bringing all kinds of weird energy. There’s literal sundown–the coming of darkness and all that implies–and the “sundowning” horror of losing one’s mind to old age.
Also who’s creepin’ around the back stair? Is it the woman in the song? Her secret lover? Is he saying to take care because one of the steps is loose? Dang, Gordon Lightfoot is a thoughtful guy, nevermind to all of this. He should do a song about going to Home Depot and fixing the back stair then they can play it at the Home Depot haha we have fun.