In the Spotlight (for once): Lyrics

I think lyrics are often overlooked in songs. There’s a straightforward reason for this: if a song has ropey lyrics but a good tune it’s still a great song, but if the tune is dodgy it doesn’t matter how good the lyrics are — the song is rubbish. For what it’s worth, I’m sure that’s how it should be, but it’s still nice to give the lyrics a bit of thought sometimes; they can be pieces of art in their own right. I’ve put together a short list of my favourite lyricists here — although incidentally none of them are/were anything other than excellent at tunes either. I guess they often go hand in hand, and it’s also true that if the music isn’t good enough straight away I’ll never stick around long enough to hear the lyrics. In no particular order (that would be much too hard):

David Bowie

There really wasn’t anything David Bowie couldn’t do better than almost anyone else. His lyrics were just as variable as his musical style and haircut, switching between absurdist and whimisical, tender and direct and impenetrably symbolic with apparent ease. One of my favourite things about his lyrics is that they’re never too obvious; any one line could be a hugely vulnerable intimation about his own life or psyche, a political statement or simply mean nothing at all. Here are a few samples which I think demonstrate the variation nicely:

“Stay — that’s what I meant to say, or do something
But what I never say is
stay this time
I really meant to so bad this time
’Cause you can never really tell 
When somebody wants something you want too”

(Stay, Station to Station, 1976)

I was stone and he was wax
So he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable
And we frightened the small children away

(The Bewlay Brothers, Hunky Dory, 1971)

On the day of execution, on the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile, 
At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all
Your eyes, your eyes

(Blackstar, Blackstar, 2016)

Alt-J

The biggest mark against Alt-J’s (frankly incredible) lyrics is that lead singer Joe Newman sings with such a strong inflection in his voice that it’s almost impossible to work out what he’s saying if you don’t have it in front of you. In fairness to him, his voice contributes a lot to the band’s experimental vibe — balancing between electronic and intimate acoustic sounds, ignoring normal song conventions and striving to make their albums feel like a progression rather than a collection, this band is tied with Fleet Foxes for my favourite people making music at the moment. It is a pity that the lyrics are so inaudible because they’re really beautiful; the words have been chosen with poet-esque care and inspiration comes from a huge variety of sources — Hubert Selby Juniour’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, for instance, or the story of the ill-fated war photographer lovers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Here are a few:

Realization grew on me
As quickly as it takes your hand
To warm the cool side of the pillow
I’m there for you, be there for me
I’ll hum the song the soldiers sing
As they march outside our window
Hunger of the pine

(Hunger of the Pine, This is All Yours, 2014)

Dry dunes cater for jumping boys
From the nape of her neck he made his descent
They watched men hurl from rock to sea
Like sternum to button, lined lip pinches in between

(Warm Foothills, This is All Yours, 2014)

A violent wrench grips mass, rips light, tears limbs like rags,
Burst so high finally Capa lands,
Mine is a watery pit. Painless with immense distance
From medic from colleague, friend, enemy, foe, him five yards from his leg,
From you Taro. Do not spray into eyes — I have sprayed you into my eyes.

(Taro, An Awesome Wave, 2012)

Neutral Milk Hotel

This is a polarising band, and I do see why — their particular brand of raw, messy, edge-of-breakdown folk rock isn’t always easy to swallow. I’m firmly on the positive side of the fence, though: I’ve rarely connected with an album as quickly as I did with “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (which is the only one they made worth listening to, even I’m not a big enough fan for “Avery Island”). The songwriter and lyricist, Jeff Mangum, had recurring dreams reportedly for months about a Jewish family fleeing the Holocaust before writing these songs and the result is a near-schizophrenic but enormously tender album about someone entirely other than Mangum. Even if you’re sceptical about how he reached it, you can’t doubt the emotional intensity in his lyrics — he actually suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after making this album and, in hindsight, you can hear it coming. This has been called one of the greatest albums of all time, and these are some of the reasons why:

I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and five-hundred families
And will she remember me fifty years later?
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine
Know all your enemies
We know who our enemies are

(Oh Comely, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998)

And she was born in a bottle-rocket 1929
With wings that ringed around a socket right between her spine
All drenched in milk and holy water pouring from the sky
I know that she will live forever
She won’t ever die

(Ghost, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998)

Two-headed boy, she is all you could need
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires
And retire to sheets safe and clean
But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.

(Two Headed Boy Part 2, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998)

Fleet Foxes

My other current music favourite. Fleet Foxes songwriter Robin Pecknold writes charmingly lovely lyrics that make me want to go and live in a forest somewhere (an impressive feat; I’m very much a townie). The pastiche is fantastic for calming yourself down — great music for moments of homesickness or panic — but my favourite Fleet Foxes lyrics centre on self-exploration in a gentle, reflective way far removed from the typical angsty songs that come from this sort of thought pathway. A lot of the focus is on trying to become the person you want to be without getting in your own way, something that hit me, at least, in a very personal way. As the cherry on the cake, Pecknold takes a lot of care over his choice of words: as well as being meaningful, the way the songs are put together is unusually beautiful.

In dearth or in excess
Both the slave and the empress
Will return to the dirt, I guess
Naked as when they came
I wonder if I’ll see
Any faces above me
Or just cracks in the ceiling
Nobody else to blame

(Montezuma, Helplessness Blues, 2011)

I walk with others in me yearning to get out
Claw at my skin and gnash their teeth and shout
One of them wants only to be someone you’d admire
One would as soon just throw you on the fire

(Someone You’d Admire, Helplessness Blues, 2011)

I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ‘round their throats
To keep their little heads from falling in the snow, and I turned ‘round and there you go
And Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime

(White Winter Hymnal, Fleet Foxes, 2008)

Regina Spektor

There aren’t as many lyricists as quirky as piano-balladist-in-chief Regina Spektor. Sometimes metaphysical musings, sometimes very affecting love songs, occasionally Russian language poetry — there isn’t a lot she hasn’t tried out. One thing I particularly love about her lyrics is her penchant for story-telling; often using characters rather than her own personality in a way that makes me feel like I’m listening to a particularly eclectic collection of short stories. Here are a few examples:

Maybe you should kiss someone nice
Or lick a rock
Or both
Maybe you should cut your own hair
Because that can be so funny
It doesn’t cost any money
And it always grows back
Hair grows even after you’re dead

(Ghost of Corporate Future, Soviet Kitsch, 2004)

Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
He ate a slice of wonder bread and went right back to bed
And history books forgot about us and the bible didn’t mention us
And the bible didn’t mention us, not even once

(Samson, Begin to Hope, 2006)

Be afraid of the lame, they’ll inherit your legs
Be afraid of the old, they’ll inherit your souls
Be afraid of the cold, they’ll inherit your blood
Après moi, le deluge
After me comes the flood

(Après Moi, Begin to Hope, 2006)

So those are five of my favourite lyricists! I don’t want to say my top five because there were an awful lot more I could have included here as equals, but I thought I’d refrain from making this post as long as War and Peace. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this so please let me know if you have any particular favourites I should be listening to! Thanks for reading.