Thursday, 12 January 2012


I probably don't value lyrics enough on this blog. I love good lyrics - they're poetry with the additional feature of having melody, harmony and rhythm to make them carry extra weight and meaning. I like a lot of instrumental music too, but there's something about a good lyric set to a fitting melody that adds an emotional charge; I don't think lyrics are valued enough generally, in fact.

First, something sombre which I keep returning to.

"I thought that I was full of such hope and light, and such love.
But all my words - I wrote them for you,
and all my songs - I sang them for you.
Photos of me, they all show
a staring man I don't know.

You know that I've been through... all this nonsense with you.
And all my words - I broke them for you,
and all my plans - I snapped them in two.

I could create like it was stealing
I'd love to sing how I was feeling
I had a soul that burned for beauty
but who gives a shit? I must admit,

I've lost it a little bit."

That's the first half of the song. If you've just read those and feel incredulous, I urge you to listen to the song to see how perfect the words are to describe his feeling. Those first lines - "I thought that I was full of such hope and light, and such love" are perfected by their phrasing: he pauses after I, and of, and light, and love - you find yourself thinking of this man, this man the singer thought he was, an optimistic and 'light' man, light so heavy with positive connotations, love the garnish on this wonderful image. But then the 'but' comes. And at first it doesn't make sense. Why does writing his words and singing his songs jeopardise his great character?

The best thing about the song is that he doesn't tell you why. There's just this 'you', this person he broke promises for, abandoned plans for, but we never find out why. I assume total sacrifice, an image barely between the lines, and rejection, but it's left to you to pull your own experience into it, interpret the ambiguities.

My favourite words though are these:

"I could create like it was stealing
I'd love to sing how I was feeling
I had a soul that burned for beauty
but who gives a shit? I must admit,
I've lost it a little bit."

They cut through me every time, partly because the song builds up here, starts to take you into serious emotion with the dynamics and Jamie Lenman's unforgettable voice. This man that the singer describes was someone who could 'create like it was stealing' (great concept anyway), making art so easily, the epitome of youth, who had a 'soul that burned for beauty'. The word 'soul' always means a lot - sometimes it's clichéd - but here I know what he means. That feeling you get when you see something awe-inspiring - when you wake up in a top-floor flat and realise the whole world's out there, when you see someone you love waiting for you before they see you, then catch the recognition in their smile - that's a soul burning for beauty. It desires it, it is damaged and brought to life by it. And this fucker has taken that away from him. The line 'who gives a shit?' makes me hurt every time, because it's so nonchalant, yet so angry. And it doesn't rhyme, so as Lit teachers would say, your attention is drawn to it - he doesn't even care about making the lines flow.

But then it all softens up. "I can't breathe this atmosphere; can't wait till I get out of here." It's over. There's misery, not anger, and then that builds into a climax of perfectly played post-hardcore, ended with 'Cause I have wasted year after year, and smile I may, but it's insincere, my dear', ended with an endearment which is both acerbic and loving. Every breath and yell is conflicted, and the music echoes that and reinforces it perfectly. Good lyrics are like good poetry, but expressive even without analysis, because of the juxtaposition between each word and its backing, or the primal support the music gives to its meaning.

Some of the best lyrics in my music collection are Conor Oberst's, but he's a thirty-year old singer from Omaha, Nebraska who grew up Catholic and then gravitated into mysticism, so the level on which I connect to the sentiments in his tracks is often not the same as with Reuben. I recognise the sentiments and think they're beautifully expressed, but I don't necessarily feel them. (He also goes heavy on the sympathy-inducing stuff, which my British restraint finds slightly uncomfortable.)Still, I smile every time I hear -

"Now every dream gets whittled down just like every fool gets wise;
You will never reap of any seed deprived of sunlight."

and the lyrics to 'Arienette' or 'From a Balance Beam'. In fact, the songs with good lyrics in his back catalogue are hard to choose, because they'd all be revelatory for someone, however navel-gazing they are.

So what makes good lyrics? Well, I think they're less subjective than good music as a whole; when Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys does his tongue-twisting and Dylan comes in with a nice bit of bathos, I think it's hard to deny some mastery even if you don't like it. And when Client sing:

"It's everywhere
In everything
Every day I'm not promising
We don't have to be good
Or play by the rules
'Cos we're the same in the things that we do
And I love it in the morning
And I love it in the evening"

I think it'd be hard to deny those lyrics are pretty horrific. Then again, like with poetry, you have to relate to them. For me, I think what primarily makes a good lyric is its observational astuteness (when you think, "Christ that's a real feeling" or "That highlights something I can understand/have experienced") and originality, at least of expression, and how the words are set to the music. That's why I think I like lo-fi so much, because they haven't tampered with the raw emotion of the voice too much. It's also why I dislike it when people never write their own songs - how can they profess to have made an album if they're singing someone else's sentiments? And often those same groups' music was written by someone trying to pen a hit, so there aren't even feelings there initially. What little is contained in the song gets lost in the mix.

When Adele sang 'Make You Feel My Love' and it got all famous a few months ago, I didn't know what to feel. I felt she did well with it, emotionally - it was a powerful rendition, and that's not something I often say about pop. But she'd missed the lyrics' nuances, or else ignored them. Dylan was an angry man. Adele sings sweetly, but inherent in that title is aggression. The verb 'make' should not be sung so softly in that context; it moves from being interpretation into what appears to be ignorance. He is suggesting he will force himself on this woman, make her love him, whatever you want to get from that - it's about as much a love song as Police's 'Every Breath You Take' is a love song. It illustrates how lyrics given music can take on a new character - and also, I suppose, not be as good standing alone.

Anyway, this has been a very long post, so I'll stop writing now. It's been a long and painful evening, not that this is one of those miserable self-examining emo blogs; this post, apologies for the length if you've got here, has served to distract me from myself.