Music is one of life’s pure treasures – but the lyrics that accompany the sound of instruments deserve attention too. My take on the subject.
You’ll have seen from the previous blog that I’m a guy who appreciates great lyric writing, whether it’s the rarefied world of poetry or the more public and aural world of song lyrics.
This blog is a bit of a reflection on what – to me anyway – makes good songwriting and on who – in my experience (a very important proviso) – the good songwriters are or have been.
I just love a great line in a song, but I like my instruments too so to wed great lyrics to hot playing is the pinnacle for me. I like a great voice and often that’s because it’s a different voice or an unusual one. I’m not a fan of the more bland crooners – the very capable voices that are a dime a dozen.
Where it comes together splendidly for me it a mix of all these things – great lyrics, interesting (and strong) voice, well-played instruments – the whole gamut from rock basics to strings, percussion, even police whistles (Steely Dan) and jackhammers (Summer in the City – John Sebastian), and the right length. By that final point I mean there’s a happy point between “that was too short – I’d like more” and “that dragged a bit.”
I like the instruments to give the vocal space and not drown it out or distract from the purity of the singing by being discordant or jagged. I fail to see the point of even writing words to go with a song if you can’t hear them – if you’re intention is to say something other than just some guttural grunting or scat.
It’s a curious craft songwriting in the sense that the words and the music can arrive at different times from different sources. Conventionally a songwriter starts with a catchy line or two and hitches them to some chords and it evolves from there; his/her band probably helps mould it, refine it, make it a band thing. Or a set of chords and riffs pops up at a jam, the band likes it, turns it into a musical piece that works for them – then goes looking for some words to go with it. Ideally the words and the emotion of the music have a connection.
So it may be a coin toss on which has primacy: the lyrics that originated the song, or the riffs and melody carried by the instruments (where the words become an accessory). Where a band has a strong songwriter (who is usually the singer), then the lyric generally has some primacy.
When it does, to me you have a song…rather than just some vocal wallpaper. But not all vocalist-driven, lyric-centric songs are great. It’s fair to say published music has the whole range of quality from sublime stuff through journeyman lyrics (that do an OK job but don’t set the world on fire) to dire, banal at times even idiotic stuff that’s embarrassing. All purely subjective of course; what’s bad writing to some may be bonzer to others. Sadly some times you get great voices and great music – City and Colour, for example, whose lead singer has a wonderful voice, but boy the songs can be clunky lyrically.
So come on Murray, front up: who are the great ones in your view?
No surprises that as the earlier blog noted, I’m a fan of Neil Young – particularly his earlier work. He’s a complex individual – one of the weirder ones – and his huge opus is a mixed bag. He loves HEAVY jamming and there’s often no place for lyric refinement in that space. But songs like “For the turnstiles” and “Needle and the damage done” still appeal for their relative simplicity and imagery. Neil’s Canadian compatriot, the elegant songstress Joni Mitchell is right up there too – I love that line from “Free man in Paris” about “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…” and “Furry sings the blues” from Hejira is a cool piece of word picture-making, brilliantly offset by harmonica supplied by…Neil Young. Mind you Joni could sing a recipe and make it sound profound, though sensibly she doesn’t. Messrs Fagan and Becker of Steely Dan have a hip urban turn to their writing; I love what they do with the Odysseus story in “Home at last” off Aja, and “Third world man” off Gaucho is still one of my favourites – “I saw the fireworks and I believed that I was dreaming/Till the neighbours came out screaming…” Chilling. Elbow’s Guy Garvey I think is a superb lyricist – the lines in “Mirrorball” are sublime for example. The Finn brothers I admire – “Don’t dream it’s over” with the lines “…in the paper today, tales of war and of waste, but you turn right over to the TV page…” are crackerjack writing, and I’m still a fan of Split Enz songs “Small world” and “Shark attack”. The odd newie catches my attention too – Anna Nalick’s “Breathe” (from Wreck of the Day) with the lines “…we can’t jump the track we’re like cars on a cable/and life’s like an hourglass glued to the table…”
There a many great lyric moments and you’ll all no doubt have your preferences. You’ll notice I don’t mention Dylan or the Beatles or the legions of folkies who have many great things to say. But you knew that. Paul Simon too – unquestionably a talented lyricist. We all have songwriters whose lines resonate with us personally.
Here’s a curious thing though: even the great songwriters seem to be very coy about their songs. It may be hard to make out from the listening, so you turn to the CD case and chances are the lyrics aren’t included. Or if they are, they’re in some indecipherable scrawl in the smallest font imaginable, with negligible punctuation and the writing is probably as close to the same colour as the background as you can get without it disappearing. I exaggerate, but 99% of the time you get the impression the artist doesn’t really care if we get into the words or not.
Then try looking for any explanation around what the songs might be about and…good luck. Maybe it’s about maintaining some sort of mystique. You can go online of course and there are supermarkets of lyrics (not always accurate) and interpretations (ditto), but I’m surprised how uninvolved – or resistant to explanations – the writers can be. It’s almost like they’re sick of the song (or embarrassed by it) and anxious to park it and get onto the next one. I remember Roger Waters talking about his writing on Dark Side of the Moon, and tossing it off as “so Lower Sixth” (an older reference to the secondary school year now known as Year 12). I don’t agree – “Us and them” and “Time” are great pieces – “the generals sat and the lines on the map/ moved from side to side…” Not bad Rog.
Are we moving away from an interest in the words? It’s an incredibly visually oriented world and the music scene is no different. Just engaging with the words on a piece of paper may be passe; I don’t know. Certainly reading seems to be a dwindling activity in our digital world. But for a song to mean something it has to have some emotional experience in there…and it’s hard to convey that without words.
So let’s not lose sight of them.