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Let’s Get Lyrical… Lyrical09 Jun 12

Continuing my oft-visited and no doubt tedious theme: the lamentation of the genuine appreciation of music, it’s time to look at lyrics.

Believe it or not, there are songs out there in recorded format, even now, that are concerned with matters other than sex, money, drinking, partying and dancing. These seem to be the five chief themes of most chart music today (although dancing – and indeed partying – are more commonly used as a poorly veiled metaphor for sex so really we’re looking at three). Once again, the law of supply and demand answers the question “why?” – These seem to be the records that people buy, so these are the records that labels make (or is it the other way around?).

The other issue is that where people are increasingly interested in the sound, the production, the beat, and of course not forgetting the most important thing – what clothes and sunglasses the artist wears – lyrical content seems to have slipped down the ladder of priority to somewhere around the same level as the quality of Indian takeaway local to the studio. And you can see why; most people I speak to say they simply don’t listen to lyrics, so it’s harder for those artists to get signed whose chief attributes are their lyric-writing and their voice as opposed to say, their swagger and their production abilities.

But while the quadripartite of lyric, melody, harmony and rhythm that makes up the entity known as “song” has never been so unbalanced in popular music, there is still an abundance of artists out there who enshrine the art of lyric writing and make it sellable. In recent years The Arctic Monkeys, and Ed Sheeran have proved that the lyric-driven song can sell by the shedload and perhaps my favourite contemporary lyricist, Joanna Newsom manages to make a decent living off a good few hundred thousand record sales and sell-out tours around the world.

For those who have never really appreciated the true wonder and grace that a good lyric can offer to the listener, Newsome can give us a great example. Through a bit of reverse analysis, we can only wonder how she transformed a thought process something along these lines:

As human beings we live such fraught lives, constantly trying to interpret, and ascribe meaning to, the world around us. We are, individually, and as a species trying to use our intellect to find direction and purpose, whereas when we look at nature we see that despite (or more likely because of) a lack of conscious intellect, it is direction and purpose incarnate.

To this succinct little verse:

“And the Signifieds butt heads with the Signifiers,
And we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words,
While across the sky sheet the impossible birds,
In a steady, illiterate movement homewards”
Joanna Newsom – This Side of The Blue

Of course this is my interpretation and that may be not at all what she had in mind, which leads us on to the real beauty of lyrics – personal interpretation. It’s nothing short of a magic trick really – if a lyric means something to you, then that is its meaning, regardless whether or not that is what it means to other people, or even the writer, you have changed its meaning… without changing a word!

A graphic example of this would be Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”. Written at the height of the Cold War tensions, the lyrics are unclear in specific sense but visceral in a general thematic way being as it was, influenced heavily by the French Symbolist movement:

“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son ?
And what did you hear, my darling young one ?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
Bob Dylan – Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall

Commentators and analysts for years insisted that the song is a vision of nuclear Armageddon – the hard rain is nuclear fallout. But Dylan says otherwise:

“No it’s not atomic rain. It’s just hard rain”

So maybe that’s all it is. Just a song about making your way in a hard, dangerous world, where wealth and wellbeing are terminally unequal, where people don’t help or care for each other, and where bad things happen to good people. Maybe Dylan is saying nothing more than “life is tough”. But does that mean that to those who listen to song and hear nuclear Armageddon are wrong? I don’t think so, because that’s what it means to them.

It’s an important distinction to make, also that a good lyric doesn’t just sit on top of the music as a separate entity. It is part of the music and can change the flavour of the music just as strongly as a well place chord change or melodic lift. Arctic Monkeys are a classic example here:

“I want to see all of the things that we’ve already seen
Lairy girls hung out the window of a limousine
Of course it’s fancy dress
And they’re all looking quite full on in bunny ears and devil horns and hats

Anticipation has a habit to set you up
For disappointment in evening entertainment but
Tonight there’ll be some love
Tonight there’ll be a ruckus yeah
Regardless of what’s gone before

I want to see all of the things that we’ve already seen
I want to see you take the jackpot out the fruit machine
And put it all back in
You’ve got to understand that you can never beat the bandit no”
Arctic Monkeys – A View From The Afternoon

No analysis required here perhaps, not a huge amount of depth in the lyric itself, but what it does is provide the song itself with a huge amount of added depth and texture. The whole album in fact is listened to with images of grey skies, grey pavements and grey estates, grimy nightclubs, exposed flesh and fake tan swirling round your head, and it makes the music genuinely sound different, as though the timbre of the instruments themselves have all become perfectly in sync with the sentiment of the song.

So for those of who have never been too bothered about lyrics, I urge you to open your ears, because meaningful lyrics can open up a third dimension to music, which can be flat and two-dimensional, and much like Plato’s poor little chap in that cave, if you haven’t experienced it, you wouldn’t even know.

x1 Comment to “Let’s Get Lyrical… Lyrical”

  1. Kwesi says:

    A really thoughtful piece. As a singer-writer, I’ve always tried to stay true to the craft of writing (apologies, Sheila Davis!), mainly because it’s what really connects me viscerally to most of my own favourite songs, as a fan.

    Of course, the meaning that fans put into what we hear means that there’s space for that kind of deep internal connection with all kinds of music. A song like “This Guy’s In Love With You” moves me more because of Bacharach’s incredible music than the (admittedly deceptively simple) lyric. I’m sure that for some teenagers Rihanna’s songs have life-affirming character.

    Will definitely check out Joanna Newsome and the Arctic Monkeys on YouTube now, though.

    All the best.

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