Lyrically speaking

I like to think of myself as a lyrics guy — somebody who values the text of a song as much as the music. And I definitely gravitate toward songwriters who have a way with the written word — Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan come immediately to mind as favorite artists valued as much for their lyrics as their tunes.

On the other hand, I’m a huge R.E.M. fan who doesn’t know what the hell Michael Stipe is saying on half of their records and doesn’t care. It’s not as if I apply a litmus test to an artist that requires them to excel at both music and lyrics before I consider them a favorite.

I mention that because frequent commenter Amy recently hinted at having just such a test, the implication being that “favorite” status can’t be assigned simply because you enjoy an artist’s “overall sound” if you don’t also have a strong appreciation for her lyrics.

She was referring to Aimee Mann, and I won’t head too far down that path because I disagree with the premise that Aimee Mann isn’t a strong lyricist. I’d rather discuss the broader issue of whether lyrics are all that important to great music to begin with.

I’m going straight to the top for my case study. I don’t think anybody can dispute that The Beatles are worthy of “favorite” status, right? But The Beatles have a lot of mediocre lyrics, even in some of their best songs. Consider:

I think I’m gonna be sad
I think it’s today
The girl who’s driving me mad
Is going away
She’s got a ticket to ride
And she don’t care

Nothing special about those lyrics. The phrase “ticket to ride” is interesting enough but the rest is bland. If Britney Spears sang those words about the boy who’s driving her mad, nobody would be afraid to say it sucked.

It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log
But when I get home to you I find the things that you do
Will make me feel alright

Again, “hard day’s night” is a clever phrase, but working like a dog and sleeping like a log? Rhyming two clichés doesn’t keep them from being clichés.

But match those lyrics with the wonderful melodies, the harmony vocals, the guitar, bass and drums, all tied together with George Martin’s peerless production… and you have two undisputed heavyweight champion pop songs. They’re beloved not because of their lyrics but because of what they are as songs.

So I’m thinking I’m not much of a lyrics guy after all. I do love great lyrics (more on that in a bit) but I’m prepared to say they are decidedly in second place in the “words and music” hierarchy.

After all, there’s a reason I have no idea if the lyrics of Celine Dion or Metallica are any good. I don’t want to listen to their music to find out. You could show me a set of lyrics that bring me to tears but if they’re attached to a heavy metal song they’re not going to find their way into my CD rotation. But I love countless songs with mediocre lyrics.

The other question I’d like to explore is what exactly makes a good lyric. There are many answers to that question, of course, and no “right” one. As for me, I tend to gravitate toward lyricists who find poetry in the mundane. Bob Dylan has written his share of surrealistic poetry but my favorite Dylan lyrics are more straightforward. Some examples:

I’m going out of my mind
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart
– ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’

Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
– ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you
– ‘Positively 4th Street’

Bob’s son Jakob penned a simple line that’s one of my favorite lyrics:

But those days before I met you girl
Were just ice cream falling down
On the shoes of my world

Here’s one by Fiona Apple that I adore:

You came upon me like a hypnic jerk when I was just about settled

A hypnic jerk is that jolt in your body that you feel sometimes when you’re about to fall asleep. What a wonderful metaphor for an ex who broke your heart but won’t quite get out of your life.

John Mayer describes an awkward moment between lovers at a restaurant with this clever turn of phrase:

We bit our lips
She looked out the window
Rolling tiny balls of napkin paper
I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker

Ben Folds has made a career out of writing great lyrics in a conversational tone. When he’s on, he’s one of my favorite lyricists ever:

Don’t you know I’m numb, man
No, I can’t feel a thing at all
‘Cause it’s all smiles and business these days
And I’m indifferent to the loss
I’ve faith that there’s a soul somewhere
Who’s leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down
– ‘Evaporated’

You nodded off in my arms watching TV
I won’t move you an inch
Even though my arm’s asleep
One day you’re gonna wanna go
I hope we taught you everything
You need to know
Gracie girl
– ‘Gracie’

Alice, the world is full of ugly things
That you can’t change
Pretend it’s not that way
That’s my idea of faith
You can blow it off
And say there’s good in nearly everyone
Just give them all a chance
– ‘Alice Childress’

I could spend all day plucking out examples of lyrics I love. But what I’m noticing about the examples I’m thinking up is that every one of them belongs to a song I love musically as well. I’m trying to think of great lyrics to a song I’m not crazy about but nothing has yet come to mind.

That reinforces my premise above that lyrics are an important part of the music I love but secondary to the music itself (by which I mean the melody, instrumentation, production, vocals… the whole package).

What about you? What’s more important, lyrics or music? And can you think of any songs you love because of the lyrics but despite the music?

7 thoughts on “Lyrically speaking

  1. Amy says:

    I can’t imagine loving a song for its lyrics alone. If the song doesn’t work overall, I’d just be sorry to see the lyrics wasted. I only made the point about Mann because you were specifically praising her lyrics, which I found to be a bit trite.

    I agree with you about all the examples you provide. I absolutely adore “Green Grow the Rushes,” though I realize – as I’m writing this – that I have absolutely no idea what the song is about. I equally adore “Here Comes the Sun,” though there is nothing terribly original about those lyrics. So, yes, it is the package.

    However, when an artist is as adept at writing powerful, poetic, or clever lyrics, that artist usually earns my admiration even more. Joni Mitchell, Adam Duritz (Maddie reminded me this morning!), Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon… these songwriter/musicians are among my favorites because they get it all so right.

  2. Clay says:

    I agree with that… certainly an artist who does both well is worthy of special consideration. I guess our main disagreement here is that I consider Aimee Mann among that group. And maybe if you knew more of her work you wouldn’t be in the opposite camp (or maybe not).

  3. Madison says:

    Of all the songs I listen to, I think Adam Duritz creates some of the best lyrics. I can go on quoting him for some of my favorites, but I will only put one. “If you’ve never stared off into the distance than your life is a shame.” That is from “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”, a song filled with amazing lyrics from the start to the finish. Second would be Paul Simon, then Lyle Lovett, and finally Taylor Swift who has song structure and lyrics that I love. The Beatles songs given as examples are not the ones with very good lyrics. For instance “In My Life” is one of the songs that I think has some really great lyrics that make you think. So.. ya sorry this turned out so long ^_^

  4. Clay says:

    Adam Duritz is definitely a great lyricist. One of his lines I’ve always loved is “Every time she sneezes I believe it’s love” from ‘Anna Begins.’

  5. Amy says:

    Yup, that’s probably the one that put me in the Adam camp forever. Talk about capturing everything there is to capture with one single, simple, silly line. The man is a lyric God! 🙂

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