The Words That Paint A Thousand Pictures.
It is one of the most important aspects of any song, yet there seems to be less importance placed upon the quality control of lyrics. It is all very well having a great voice; if the words behind them aren’t strong enough, then there is trouble ahead.
FOR a lot of music-lovers, there are particularly important aspects they seek out…
when it comes to selecting their chosen acts. If you think back at all of your all-time favourite albums, songs and moments, what is it that defines them so? Everyone comes from a different background, and grew up listening to different music. Being born in 1983, my earliest musical memories were quite diffident. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was topping the charts, yet bands such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran were riding a crest. When it comes to the likes of Michael Jackson, I have always been in awe of his voice. The music behind it has always been brilliant, yet I find that his vocal tones are more impressive than anything else. As a songwriter, Jackson is diverse and stunning, yet I never really find myself quoting his lyrics (years on). Throughout the ’90s, my tastes shifted and I started to take notice of composition and the nature of sound. Vocals were still pretty key to me, yet it was a song’s atmosphere and sound that compelled me. The masters of the decade introduced to me a raft of new sensations and genres, and it is what drove me to become more ‘into’ music. Something happened when I reached my 20s. The background became quieter, and I started to pick up on words: what the songwriter was saying. I am not sure if this is what happens when you get to a certain age, yet I became more interested in poetry and lyrics- whereas composition and vocals took a back seat. Don’t get me wrong, there are few people in the world more obsessed with the voice than me. I spend hours working on mine, and seeing what I can do with it- trying to be better than any other human alive. This is an element that will come to fruition in future years, and is working away in the back of my mind. I find, however, that there is far too much focus on the voice alone. If you look at all the so-called ‘talent’ shows, this is all they promote. Contestants sing cover songs (and not originals); they have no personality or any sort of appeal whatsoever- all anyone concentrates upon is the voice. I have protested against these types of shows many times within my pages, and it is an issue that is not going away. Talent shows are not necessary; anyone can record music anywhere in the world. If you want to put your voice to tape, then you do not need much money to make a basic track. The only reason people appear on shows such as The Voice, is because they want to be famous. Musicians should crave respect and set to inspire people. Fame should never be craved as it is an ugly and pointless thing. It has nothing to do with music, or acting or anything- it is a way of getting attention and money in exchange for nothing. Contestants on talent shows do not want to inspire anyone, and make no efforts to write their own material or be individual. Voices are moulded into something overly-familiar and the whole experience is rather disturbing. There are the odd exceptions that can write material and have an ok-ish ability, yet it baffles me why they appear on these shows to begin with- it makes them look very needy and disingenuous. My abiding point is, that when these shows and acts are shoved into the public’s face, then all you are forced to focus on is the singing voice. It is vital that great and tremendous singers are promoted, as all of the greatest whom have ever lived are either dead or are well into middle-age. My generation has not produced anyone even remotely close to matching the likes of Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, Prince, Nina Simone and Kate Bush. It seems strange as there are over seven billion people on earth and all manner of inspiration and archive to assist the process. As much as that fact is a huge red flag, it is worrying that the young are becoming less interested in words and lyrics. It seems that attention spans are shorter and disposable aspects are favoured. You do not have to concentrate too hard to focus on a voice or composition. When you love words, you have to concentrate and dig deep- they are a facet that reward those whom truly listen. I have written- briefly- about the importance of lyrics once before (https://musicmusingsandsuch.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/music-lyrics-and-voice-sam-liddicott/). Songs require words, and I feel that less importance is being placed upon their relevance. I guess the voice comes a little more naturally. It is something that the individual possess, yet does not need to constantly modify and change. Lyrics demand constant thought and the pursuit of perfection and thought. If the new artists are going to inspire young minds- as well as be remembered decades from now- then they need to make sure that they work harder on lyrics.
In a recent blog, I sighed a huge sigh of relief, as I had finally completed a song. It was one that I had been working on for years and since day one had been tinkering and amending the words. I was never truly satisfied with the words to Vanity Mirror. You can judge for yourself if they are ‘up to scratch’ (https://musicmusingsandsuch.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/feature-putting-the-right-words-in-the-right-order/), and it is a song that I will continue to work on- making sure my vocal performance and the composition are as good as possible. Not every song I write will cause so much craze and obsession, yet it is vital that the nature of lyrics is not given short-shrift. I will examine the all-time greats and why lyrics are important to me, but my point is this: you do not have to be Bob Dylan to write something truly wonderful. Most songs are based in personal experience or revolve around love, and everyone has their own trials and tribulations. I feel that most people write lyrics too simplistically- there is little in the way of intelligence and nuance. I guess if you are in a band and your music is heavy in nature, the words may need to match the mood. Solo artists probably have the best opportunity to showcase their words, as their compositions are sounds tend to be less heavy and raw- giving you a better chance to clearly hear what is being sung. I just feel that there are going to be a lot of up-and-coming musicians waiting for their chance to make a mark, and it is fundamental that music does not purely become all about the voice. I am not sure it is a sign of the times, but it is clear that there is still a need- and appreciation- for those whom can truly pen a line. If you can make sure your songbook is as strong as your voice, then you a lot more likely to win fans and make sure you remain long in the public consciousness. Before I examine the greatest lyricists and why they should be celebrated, I am looking around the current market. To mind, the best lyricist we have at the moment is Alex Turner. Of course a song requires a wonderful composition as well, but when it comes to the business of words, then Turner is leading the way. I will be quoting one or two of his best lyrics at the end of this feature, but he is someone who should be studied closer. I mentioned that it is harder for people to focus upon lyrics when the music is heavier, yet Arctic Monkeys have a back catalogue that is predominantly on the brisk side. There is just something about Turner that means his words really stick and almost supercede the songs themselves. Turner is a modern-day poet whom mixes tales of city life with aspects of love and dislocated romance- all draped around his distinctive voice. It is not just the quality of his words that are so impressive, but the sheer range. If you look at the eatly albums, there was a great focus on dance floor calamities, odd local characters and the seedier sides of city life. Albums like Humbug became rawer and more sexually-charged and AM can be seen as an album that draws all their previous work into the one L..P.- whilst introducing new elements of Hip Hop and nods to classic Rock and Metal acts of the ’70s and ’80s. It is no surprise that their latest release has scooped awards and plaudits. Of course, the overall sound and ambitious range of sounds has counted for a lot, yet it is still Turner’s words that are the biggest focus. Without them, the band would not be as popular and celebrated they would just be another act, cut and dry. The group pay huge importance to making sure their sounds are as potent as possible, but the way in which Turner mixes poetry, wit and scorn- sometimes within the same song- is truly breath-taking. Lyrics are a way of bringing the listener into someone else’s life: giving them a chance to see behind closed doors; inside a writer’s mind, as well as let them experience streets and towns and the characters contained within. Turner can write about tenderness, but he has also has a charming venom. The way in which he paints vivid pictures and unleashes Alice In Wonderland-esque scenes within a couple of lines should be applauded. When new musicians are looking around for inspiration, they should be looking towards lyricists. If you have an ounce of insight you realise that the voice has to come from you- if you borrow too heavily then you will never get anywhere in music. Lyrics are harder to make truly special yet there is a lot of scope for glory. You do not have rip-off Turner to be as good as him. If elements are taken from his songbook (the witty tales and seedy nature of fame) and mix in other writers, then you can come up with something rather wonderful. I have mentioned before two other acts: The National and Laura Marling. Again, here are a duo whom will feature in the conclusion to this piece, but they are again artists whom understand the importance of words. Marling is a young woman whom has experienced a lot of loneliness and heartache. She brings that into her music, yet has a lot more to her than that. Her early albums saw her perhaps as a new Joni Mitchell. Marling- even at such a tender age- introduced maturity and a stunning eye for detail into her songs. On songs such as Cross Your Fingers she mixed humour with stark imagery (“…hold your toes/We’re all gonna die when the building blows“). Marling focuses on the problems and stresses of love, yet does so with wit and intelligence. She introduces nods to classic literature; sprinkling in some accusation and violent proclamation as well as romantic implore. On her latest album, Once I Was An Eagle, Marling introduces a concept album of sorts; focusing on a central figure whom starts off naively, regains something of herself, before succumbing to naivety once more. She is an artist whom will have a long future, and being so young- 23- she has plenty of time and experience ahead of her. The National are the final modern act I will mention. They share a lot in common with Leonard Cohen, as they look at the nature of love and depression, yet survey it with grace, intellect and humour, too. The voice and music may not appeal to many, as it can be seen as a little oppressive and mordent, yet one cannot fault the words. Matt Berninger is one of the greatest lyricists of the moment, as he can casually drop like this into songs: “I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with” (from Demons). There is a lot of darkness with The National’s music, but so much that makes you think. I shall mention The National more in the concluding paragraph, but for now, let me take you back in time…
When we think of gret lyricists, our minds are perhaps trained to Bob Dylan. For me, he is the epitome of what a songwriter should be. His music has inspired generations and his voice- whether you love it or not- brilliantly scores his songs. Dylan is a case of a songwriter whom found his feet and talent young, and is still surprising and satisfying fans today. Many have tried to top or equal him as a songwriter, yet none have. It is not because he ‘got their first’; or because of a particular time or age- it is just the innate talent he has. Inspiration comes in all forms, and throughout the ages. Dylan wrote about political events and the inequities in society; the atrocity and pointlessness of warfare- but most of all he wrote about love and his personal experiences. Because we are in 2014- and times have changed- does not mean it is impossible or improbable someone could come along and match Dylan’s flair. His words are abound with deep insight, strange and bizarre scenes; plenty of pathos and some stunning poetry. If you look at an individual album- say Highway 61 Revisited– it goes to show the depth and range Dylan possess. An opening salvo such as Like A Rolling Stone demonstrated the young man’s biting snarl and skillful narrative; Ballad of a Thin Man looked at an intruder in a bourgeois world; an interloper whom kept mis-stepping in a world of freaks. The closing masterpiece Desolation Row was a song that looked at fictional and historical characters interacting with one another; strange and beautiful scenes and vivid imagery was planted throughout. It is a track that makes you try to picture what Dylan saw, as you get lost in his words. If you are unfamiliar with Dylan’s lesser work- or not listened to him for a while- it is imperative, as his music had been responsible for so many of the great bands and acts we hear today. His songs were not always flawless, and some albums were underwhelming, yet Dylan is someone whom could make an average album sound incredible and encapsulating. Songs such as It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) are amongst my favourite, and is filled with alarming and Technicolor visions; tender songs such as I Want You showed a romantic side to the man, whilst Blowin’ In The Wind could be said to be one of the greatest songs of all time. Around the same time- perhaps a little later- touching souls such as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell played. Both were synonymous due to their memorable lyrics and quote-worthy lines. Cohen suffered- and still does- with depression and a lot of his songs address that; yet he was originally a poet. You can tell, as so many of his songs contain sentiments and thoughts most songwriters could not touch. Tracks such as Hallelujah are fileld with biblical references, evocative images and incredible emotion. Mitchell remains one of the greatest female songwriters of all time, and is no lesser Dylan in my mind. Her music looked a lot at romance and love, but the way in which she portrayed this was incredible. Cafe scenes and chance encounters; wistful dreams and inner recriminations mingled within the same line, and she is rightful regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. She is someone whom inspires current songwriters like Laura Marling- and thousands more, I am sure. Before I sum up, I want to mention two more- diverse- lyrical talents. Bjork is the first, and perhaps not someone most would imagine when thinking of the great wordsmiths. To me, she is one of the most original lyricists there’s been. Perhaps due to her Icelandic upbringing but her music is steeped in native folklore. She writes about love and anger like us all, yet is adept at weaving fascinating tales of nature, the natural world- and subjects most of us are unfamiliar with. Tracks like Human Behaviour said how there is “no map to human behaviour“. It told about how unpredictable and cruel people can be; how good some can be- but how marvellous the experience was. Her voice is perhaps something that most focus on with regards to her music, but I challenge you to read her words: really study them. Bjork is someone whom encapsulated the entire human experience; from evolutionary beginnings, through to symphonic crescendos of love and war. I hope we see her continue to inspire for years to come. Before I round off my piece, I want to give honourable mention to Morrissey. Here is a man whom defines most people’s ideas of a bitter loner- not true. If it were not for Morrissey we would not have some of the best songwriters of the moment, nor his wonderful words. A lot of his thoughts and ideas are filled with sarcasm; biting wit and northern humour. I adore his words so much because he is a man affected by loneliness and being misunderstood- yet can turn it into wonderful music. Songs such as Girlfriend In A Coma are genius nuggets that make you laugh; Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me is heartbreaking and ambiguous; I Know It’s Over is haunting and emotional- whereas This Charming Man is a fascinating tale. In spite of illness and recent setbacks, Morrissey has new material afoot, and some 30 years since he started out, he is still one of the greatest songwriters we have.
Okay, then. You have heard a lot from me- poor you- but I hope the point is made. Music is not in total danger of hitting rock bottom- with so much out there it could never die out. I just feel that the balance of consideration is being paid to vocal duties; the words are being overlooked. There are many great songwriters out there at the moment, and plenty whom can write lines and songs that take your breath and make you want to write stuff of your own. Whilst re-listening to songs by Arctic Monkeys and Bob Dylan, I came up with the below:
“Mother, sorry for what I said yesterday/And the 30 years before“.
“Equal justice and true love are former charges of mine/He left his money to religion/And hers to the home for the blind“.
“The ghost of Isaac Newton haunts my dreams/He ties an apple stem with his tongue/And tells secrets that no one understands“.
I am not sure what it means; nor where it came from. Great lyricists have the ability to be tease words out of all of us. I always carry around a couple of notebooks to scribble down thoughts. Some are good; some bad, yet I feel I can always polish a bad lyric, and when you get into a rhythm, entire songs are formed. Too many bands and solo acts are too concerned with making sure the ‘sound’ is as stunning as possible- often the base and bedrock of their songs get overlooked. Not every song has to be a Morrissey or Dylan-esque classic- although every once in a while it is great to have a go. Over the course of ten or eleven songs, so much range and ground can be covered- and wonderful songs unveiled. If you are a musician- or not- think about what you write at the moment. If it purely about love or something more detached and oblique; do you feel a little stifled? A lot of songwriters tend to stick with the same themes and topics, and this can cause stagnation. If you look at some of the greats-and what they write about- I am sure that new inspiration can be summoned up and implanted in your mind. When you find new themes to study, and new masters to study, it not gives you fresh inspiration- but can add weight and diversity to your music. I guess the point of the piece was to reaffirm the vitality of the written word. It is the common thread in pretty much every song recorded, and something that will never go away. Too many modern acts negate the business of honing and stretching themselves as lyricists, and I am always searching around for great songwriters to be inspired by. The likes of The National, Laura Marling and Alex Turner are well-documented and played, by to my mind, under-appreciated. It is not plagiarism to be influenced by their essence; there is to their work that can extrapolated and redefined. Our future stars are the ones whom have to carry the torch and inspire generations. I admire voices that are truly different and bold; composers whom push beyond the preconceived and well-worn paths; yet I search around and wonder where the great lyricists are going to come from. There are plenty of great writers out there, yet I feel there should be more. Perhaps it is a lack of education and appreciation (of the past and present greats); a tendency to concentrate on sonic evocation, or something else. Who am I to criticise anyway? I just hope that twenty-or-so years from now (when the likes of Dylan are no longer with us) that the best lines ever written are not confined to history- I hope they are being penned by the current crop. Just from listening back at some great songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Morrissey I have been inspired to put pen to paper and amend a song that has taken me years to complete…
Ten Examples of Brilliant Lyrics:
Bob Dylan: “In this heat room the pipes just cough/The country music plays so soft/But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind“. (Visions of Johanna, 1966)
Leonard Cohen: “Your faith was strong but you needed proof/You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you“. (Hallelujah, 1984)
Laura Marling: “He greets me with kisses when good days deceive him/And sometimes with scorn and some times I believe him“. (My Maniac and I, 2007)
The National: “Famous angels never come through England/England gets the ones you never need“. (England, 2010)
Bob Dylan: “The kerosene is brought down from the castles/By insurance men who go/Check to see that nobody is escaping/To Desolation Row“. (Desolation Row, 1965)
Bjork: “I tip-tow down to the shore/Stand by the ocean/Make it roar at me/And I roar back“. (Violently Happy, 1993)
Alex Turner: “And yeah I’d love to tell you my problem/You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham“. (Fake Tales of San Francisco, 2006)
Joni Mitchell: “All romantics meet the same fate someday/Drunk and cynical and boring/Someone in some dark cafe“. (The Last Time I Saw Richard, 1971)
Morrissey: “I am the son and heir/Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar“. (How Soon Is Now?, 1985)
Alex Turner: “Baby we both know/That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day“. (Do I Wanna Know?, 2013)