This question arose yesterday when a good friend and I got into a conversation about the importance of lyrics in music. Specifically, how much do you value lyrics or, to put it another way, how much do the lyrics of a song impact on your overall enjoyment of the music you’re listening to.
If I’m honest, I find this a very difficult question to answer because for me it varies from artist to artist. My initial reaction was that lyrics don’t really impact on my overall enjoyment of music and to a certain extent that is true. I certainly would say that I never really take a dislike to a song because of lyrical content. I also don’t sit down and listen to music specifically to analyse an artists lyrics. But having thought about it a great deal last night, I would say that lyrics can and regularly do leave me absolutely floored with their brilliance or beauty.
I have always been a massive lover of English and writing, and indeed initially applied to do English at University. I love the way words work together, sound and interact in language whether it be poetry or prose. So the lyrics that I often fall in love with are lyrics which tend to have a deeper meaning, don’t really make sense at first perhaps, but work together beautifully and create wonderful images and ideas. Words that need further exploration I guess. For example, one of my favourite songs in the world is I Am Trying To Break Your Heart by Wilco. The opening lyrics are “I am an American Aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue. I’m hiding out in the big city blinking. What was I thinking when I let go of you” There is no really obvious or immediate connection for me with these words. It’s not possible. But the words work so beautifully and create fantastic images in my mind. And that whole album is full of magical lyrical moments; “tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs”; “I’ve got reservations, about so many things but not about you”; and “distance has no way of making love understandable”’ being some of the examples, which never fail to give me goosebumps. I think that’s ultimately when I know a song’s lyrics have impacted on me, when the goosebumps kick in! Small Town Boredom’s song ‘Void Lighting’ for example “I’ll trade my secret life with ghosts. Just to hear you breathing.” I know the story behind the song, which undoubtedly adds to the impact of those words, but with or without the story I can guarantee that those words would never fail to leave an impression. I still get excited when I am listening to a song and know there’s a great lyric coming up.
Of course, there are storytelling musicians for whom lyrics are absolutely essential. Lets consider an artist like Withered Hand, for example, who is essentially a wonderful story teller. When I listen to his music, more often than not I am focusing on the lyrical content as much as the musical backing. The song ‘No Cigarettes’ is just a wonderful little tale both musically and lyrically and most of his songs follow in a similar vein. The same applies to artists like Fionn Regan, Bob Dylan, Aiden Moffat and the Arctic Monkeys, among others. In fact, it was Regan himself who commented that music is just the background for his words. So I guess to some artists it’s absolutely vital that the lyrical content matches the quality of the music. But there are artists where the words seem to pale in significance in comparison to the music. I’m thinking Radiohead, REM, Sigur Ros, and Bon Ivor to name a few. This is of course not a criticism of their lyrics, it’s just that I think there are other things that grab the attention more with these artists than the words themselves. Thom Yorke’s voice is startling yet often the words are mumbled and hard to make out. This does not spoil my enjoyment of the music. Radiohead are without doubt one of my favourite artists. REM’s Michael Stipe has said himself that often his lyrics are jibberish. Sigur Ros combine a mixture of Icelandic and Jibberish to create their own language and Bon Ivor’s words often get lost in the beauty that is his voice. My enjoyment of artists like this is not diminished in any way by the lack of connection with the lyrical content. Take eagleowl for example. By their own admission the vocals are kept low in the mix. It’s the way they like it. Does this make their lyrical content or songs worse than others? No, of course not and the vocal is still an important element in the overall sound/texture. However, it does have an impact live where the vocals are often inaudible (I should say this was more an issue on the early stuff than more recent stuff). But it’s how they are and it’s how they work best. I’m not always sure of what their lyrics are necessarily but it does not ever have a negative impact on what I’m listening to.
So, is there a conclusion to these ramblings? Well I’m not sure. I do think lyrics are important. I certainly spend time on my words and try to create something I’m proud of. But it’s not the be all and end all of a song. Whilst they can leave an undeniable impact on me, I will not dismiss a song simply because I do not connect with the lyrics or the message wasn’t conveyed properly. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this to be honest. But I’d be interested to hear others opinions on the matter for sure.