I think that the words are as important as the tune. Of course, I would say that, as I’m a lyricist.Lyrics, like music and, for that matter, art in any form, are a matter of taste, so we find ourselves navigating tricky waters here. I’m sure that I can find a www full of fans who think that Robbie Williams is the greatest lyricist of the modern age. We love the lyrics of our favourite artists, cheesy or not. I think that there’s room to appreciate a well-crafted or a meaningful lyric regardless of the music that you like, though.
I’m not saying that I think that every lyric has to be deep and meaningful – just beautifully poetic will more than do – in that respect I’m with old Archie MacLeish – “…a poem should not mean, but be.” (Ars Poetica). But let’s not get too deeply lost up in our own ars…
There are lyrics that I love. I grew up with my parents’ creaky old record collection – a lot of Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac – a selection that influenced my love for strong melody and harmony more than anything else, I suspect. Paul Simon’s lyrics were the first that I remember loving – “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school / it’s a wonder I can think at all…”, (Kodachrome) along with The Boxer and American Tune.
As I got into my teens I was introduced to Rush, another huge influence on me, and the lyrics of Neil Peart – at his best a stunning wordsmith –
“The dancer slows her frantic pace in pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face aglow with perspiration.
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire with just the briefest pause
Then flooding through her memory; the echoes of old applause.” (Losing it)
I became a great admirer of the lyrics of Steve Taylor – witty and laced with puns, like ‘Jung and the Restless’ a pop at pop psychology:
“Jung and the restless / primal screams
ain’t showbiz bewitching?
first came stats pulling habits out of rats / now they may need more attention”
I loved the (admittedly pretentious at times) musings of Fish in Marillion’s latter albums – an excerpt from ‘Warm Wet Circles’ remains one of my all-time favourite lyrics:
“I saw teenaged girls like gaudy moths: a classroom’s shabby butterflies
Flirt in the glow of stranded telephone boxes;
Planning white lace weddings from smeared hearts and token proclamations –
rolled from stolen lipsticks across the razored webs of glass.
Sharing cigarettes with experience with her giggling jealous confidantes,
she faithfully traces his name with quick-bitten fingers
Through the tears of condensation that’ll cry through the night
As the glancing headlights of the last bus kiss adolescence goodbye.”
I think that’s poetry in its own right.
I’ve come to love the lyrics of artists like Joe Jackson and Squeeze for the wit and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits for the power of the pictures that they paint with words: if small-town America has a purer, more plaintive chronicler than Bruce, I’d like to hear from them. I still get a lump in my throat singing along to The River in the car sometimes.
I could go on about lyrics and lyricists that I love all night – I’ve not touched on Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading, Willy Mason, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, Barenaked Ladies…
The point is, I think that lyrics are often under rated and under appreciated. They end up as filler in too many songs, just syllables to fit a vocal around, pretty much scat (pun intended).
The problem is: writing lyrics is hard. Writing even bad lyrics is a challenge for a lot of people, writing good lyrics (let’s, for the sake of argument, say that lyrics can be judged on quality for some reasons independent of personal taste) harder still.
Lots and lots of musicians put hours into learning their instruments, finding new chords, rhythms, runs and licks. Fewer, I think, are willing to put the same craft and effort into lyrics – there’s a tendency to say ‘that’ll do’. I know, I’ve done it. Partly because you suspect that nobody’s listening, partly because there’s a touch of inverse snobbery about classy lyrics – it’s easy to be overly sensitive to accusations of pretension. Partly, though, I think, because it’s just so easy to end up sat there with writer’s block and think “screw it, nobody listens to the words anyway”.
“The writer stares with glassy eyes, defies the empty page
His beard is white, his face is lined and streaked with tears of rage.
Thirty years ago, how the words would flow – with passion and precision
but now his mind is dark and dulled by sickness and indecision.” (Losing it)
This always haunts me when I’m sat with half a song. Bloody Peart, smart-arse.
I hope that I’ll never lose the spark that makes me want to write. It can be a pain in the behind, pacing the floor and rejigging a set of lines again and again, trying to condense something that you really want to say into some elegant, rhythmic, rhyming structure. It’s so worth it when you get it right, though.
I’d like to say thanks to all the people that have complimented us on our lyrics after hearing us play. It means a lot to me. It also means kudos to Rob, Trev and Dave, who have done sound for us, that people can actually make the words out. I’m delighted that people have enjoyed our lyrics, I’ll be putting some of them up on the site shortly.
There are loads of people round here that write great lyrics, Kev’s (Millner) and Sian’s (Just to Annoy Ray) songs are lyrically (as well as musically) brilliant, keep your ears open.
To all of the existing, budding and would-be lyricists out there – keep writing. I’ve discarded three times as many lyrics as I’ve ever kept and I have loads that I’ve never been prepared to put out there. We all improve with practice and we all inspire and challenge each other. Pick up that pen. In the mean time, I’ll be posting some of our lyrics soon; comments welcome.