What’s In A Lyric?

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.

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8 thoughts on “What’s In A Lyric?

  1. Lyrics for me are incredibly important. Most of my favourite bands/artists ever have great lyrics. Such as: The Smiths, Pulp, Divine Comedy, Randy Newman, Elton John, Frightened Rabbit. I could name more, whose work I also love but whom I’m less familiar with for one reason or another: Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Roxy Music. I definitely like them equally for their lyrics as for their music, and I can even recognise songs by these artists which are transformed from average to brilliant just by a great lyric.

    However, I can only think of three bands that I love whose lyrics are secondary to the music: The Lightning Seeds, Oasis and Coldplay. I utterly adore these three, and yet their lyrics are mostly average. Although my favourite Oasis songs incidentally all have great lyrics no matter what anyone says: Live Forever, Cigarettes and Alchohol, Rock and Roll Star and Stay Young. In the case of these bands I have such a great emotional connection with either the actual music (Coldplay- who can resist the heartbreaking piano line of The Scientist) or the culture of the band (Oasis- I was getting pissed to them as a teenager) or personal history (Lightning Seeds- first music I ever listened too) that I’m not all that bothered by the lyrics.

    But otherwise bands need great lyrics to really keep me interested. The best new band I have seen and who I have bothered to follow recently are Babygod whose lyrics are excellent, and this really sets them apart.

  2. I hear you Matthew. I just don’t always think it’s about lyrics. I mean there are loads of great lyricists – Guy Garvey being a favourite. But then equally, I adore Sigur Ros and their lyrics are jibberish. And I love instrumental music like Mogwai, Olafur Arnalds, Explosions In The Sky. Maybe my love of musicianship and insturmentation exceeds my need for quality lyrics? I don’t know. I just know that words are important but not for the reasons you outline.

  3. I can’t get on with instrumental music at all. Songs do very little for me unless they have words, or at least a voice doing something. I love some of Sigur Ros, but only the ones where he’s singing. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know what he’s actually singing about, because there is a human element in the song- the voice. If it’s just music, no matter how lovely, I find it very difficult to make an emotional connection with. Because of Sigur Ros’ lack of lyrics, they could never be a band that I could completely fall for, and this goes for Mogwai and the other, but they’re too loud for me anyway.

  4. Fair enough. I completely understand that. And it’s interesting to hear just how important lyrics are to you.

  5. I love, love, love lyrics, so much that if a band has intentionally whacked out lyrics that don’t make sense on purpose I will 9 times out of 10 stop listening and toss that CD right into the trash. Honestly REM is the only band that comes to mind that somehow passed under my radar on this. Well, most Punk bands also are forgiven. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? (Aside from the truly great oldschool Punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Sham69 who did have something to say, and now pop punk bands like Green Day who tell stories and some Anarcho-Punk bands who have a message now.) Incidentally, this is my biggest gripe about indie music. It’s usually so banal or so full of nonsense about kitchen objects or how love is like a fully ripened tomato or something so insipidly stupid as that.

    But then there’s the band that *thinks* they’re writing brilliant lyrics and they’re just utterly awful. Then you have to decide if the music transcends the painful words. Sadly, the new Arctic Monkeys album does not, in my opinion. But other bands do make the cut: Led Zeppelin had some pretty ridiculous lyrics but did we really care?

    And instrumental music? I do love it too. A Calm Blue Sea, Flowers of Hell, Medeski Martin & Wood, Marco Benevento, I love all of those varying styles of lyric-less music. Sometimes I just need to think, and when I’m writing especially, I can’t hear other words aside from the ones I need inside my head. Maybe it’s because I talk outloud when I write, hahah

    But yes, good lyrics can change your life. That Frightened Rabbit album got me through some dark, dark days. Elliott Smith gets me through some more on a regular basis. Morrissey’s lyrics will never leave me, both for nostalgic reasons and because they’ve come with me all these years and taken on new meanings too.

    Great post! Thanks! xoxo

  6. I agree completely on the instrumental music being good background for working. When I was at Uni working on my thesis Mogwai tended to be my music of choice because I wasn’t distracted by the words. You see Tart, now you’re making me realise even more how words impact on my enjoyment of a song. If there are words, I want to hear them. And that’s even more important live. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen a band and the vocals have been lost in the mix. Nothing is worse. If there are vocals, let them be heard. So yeah, words in my head and words on the stereo just don’t seem to work well at the same time.

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