When I was a teenager, people who were much older than me would tell me how the songs of Bob Dylan were poetry set to music. This annoyed me no end—I couldn’t see the genius in the few words of his that I could make out and, as I prided myself on already loving music with poetic lyrics, found it quite offensive that this old dude was still considered a paragon of the written word (sung badly). Many years later, I did indeed go through a ‘Dylan’ phase and eventually got it, coming to love many of his lyrics which I now accept to be, well, genius.
What makes a lyric more poetry than simply a vocal accompaniment to music and giving the singer something to do so he doesn’t have to fill the song with contemplative dance? A few rules:
• No clichés. This goes for a difference between good and bad poetry too.
• Words that fit the music, that inhabit the same mood. (Imagine the lyrics to Barbiegirl sung to the tune of As I Sat Sadly By Her Side by Nick Cave. Actually, that would be pretty interesting…)
• Lyrics that are about something concrete. Just like good poems, a great lyric needs to be about something and be cohesive in its delivery.
• Sung with passion, knowing the words so well that the right words are stressed at the right moments. Note, passion is not the same as vocal talent. (See Bob Dylan again.)
• As good on the written page as through your speakers.
Here are a few of my favourite lyrics from bands and artists (artist in the truest sense of the word) that I know. They are perfect lyrics and, if you pull them out and read them without knowing they are part of a song, stand up in their own right on the page.
There She Goes, My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
‘I look at you and you look at me and
Deep in our hearts babe we know it
That you weren’t much of a muse
But then I weren’t much of a poet.’
Nick Cave’s entire oeuvre is a vast collection of beautiful words so picking just one song is difficult.
In There She Goes, My Beautiful World, Cave tackles the bane of every writer that has ever lived— writers’ block. The lyric starts with a list of natural features (names of trees, flowers) trying to summon beauty back onto the page. In the second and third verses he gives a list of historical figures who created despite their circumstances; it’s like he is trying to shame himself into writing something, anything.
4st 7lb, by Manic Street Preachers
‘I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.’
Any lyric from their flawless 1994 album, The Holy Bible would do. For me, it is the zenith of poetry set to music. 4st 7lb refers to what, at the time, was considered the absolute cut off point for someone suffering from anorexia; any less than this weight and you were gone. The song details in excruciating detail the process of anorexia, with a kind of count down of weights as the first person anorexic gradually watches herself disappear.
Ys, by Joanna Newsom
‘While the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed
And the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze.’
An entire album of lyrical delight. The music is so gorgeous—the complex harp melodies, the lush orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks—that if you heard it without the vocal and not knowing each song had words attached, you would think it was the greatest thing ever.
But that’s only half of it! Newsom’s words are as expertly rendered as the musical arrangements themselves. Her focus on the natural world, her turns of phrase that not once drift towards cliché despite the sheer length of each song.
A Lady of a Certain Age, by The Divine Comedy
‘You chased the sun around the Cote d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscured.’
Although the weight of their back catalogue falls on the side of whimsy and wry humour, every so often (I think about 3 songs per album, but I haven’t tested that with science) band leader Neil Hannon creates something so riveting and moving that it floors you.
This ballad tells the story of an ageing heiress and socialite, telling strangers her life story with all the wonderful and elegant people she has met. Her life has certainly seemed blessed, but as the song progresses Hannon throws in the occasional hint that things weren’t as good as she remembered them. Now, an old lady, she pines for a young, handsome man to comment on her youthful looks, with the heartbreaking line: ‘“You wouldn’t think that I was seventy.” And he’d say, “no, you couldn’t be.”’
Dark Eyes, by Bob Dylan
‘I live in another world
Where life and death are memorised.’
My favourite Dylan lyric comes from arguably his worst album: Dark Eyes, from the much-derided Empire Burlesque. Trust me though, it’s worth wading through the mire for this, the last song on the album.
Bob strips everything back and it’s 1963 again; a children’s song in its simplicity. But the words, oh the words, that posit these fantastic and often dark images in your mind that linger long after you’ve heard/read them.