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“I don’t really listen to lyrics”. I must have heard this statement, or variations on it, hundreds of times, and perhaps the most unnerving element is not that I hear it a lot but that I hear it a lot from people who love music. People with whom I play in bands, swap albums and receive recommendations from.
Personally I see the human voice as the defining characteristic that separates a song from a piece of music. Yes, music on its own carries an immense amount of emotional weight, but without the context of language I believe music deals with the broader brush strokes of emotions; happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and so forth. Lyrics, and the nature of their delivery, mine deeper into the emotional complexity of the human mind. It is lyrics that give us subtle emotional detail, enrich the surrounding music with narrative context and, in return, take on pathos and depth from the notes and chords at play around them. Listen to a piece of music in isolation from even a title, and I challenge even the most insightful musician or student of music to give me any precise intended meaning. It’s all very well to know that Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is telling a story, but without the accompanying story there is no indication as to what the narrative of the piece involves. We may well assign adjectives such as delicate, playful or menacing to its various movements but beyond that we, as listeners, remain in the dark. The music to Peter and the Wolf was in fact directly informed by the story we all know so well (imagined by Prokofiev himself) and serves to exemplify how language gives music a narrative and emotional focus, even without it being directly involved in the composition in the form of lyrics.
In many ways I can understand those who do not notice lyrics, and despite finding the indifference to lyrics a colossal sadness, I have no prejudice towards my music loving friends and still hold their musical taste and knowledge in high regard. Their indifference to the words of a song and how they are delivered doesn’t appear to admonish their critical appreciation of a piece of music in general, and I find myself questioning whether this is due to a great deal of lyrics being used primarily as a vehicle for melody and harmony rather than meaning.
I’ll take Grizzly Bear as an example. I for one take very little from Grizzly Bear lyrics in general, despite the staggering beauty of their songs. Ready, Able is a master class of arrangement and instrumentation, the vocals included, however the lyrics themselves seem to be applied with the same broader emotional method as the instrumental arrangement; a vehicle for melody and harmony designed to elicit a grand emotional reaction. Take the chorus; They go we go, I want you to know, what I did I did. The combination of soft consonants and round vowels allow the vocals to dip and drift in much the same way as the guitar line, interweaving rather wondrously. Merely saying the chorus refrain out loud rather than singing it brings out the rhythm of the sentence and its role as a melodious device within the song becomes clear (another great example of this use of linguistic sounds would be the chorus of Give It Away by The Red Hot Chili Peppers).
I’m gonna take a stab at this/Surely we’ll be alright/Make a decision with a kiss/Maybe I have frostbite. The opening lines of Ready, Able are a collage of images that sit well within the framework of the song and contribute to the overall mood of the piece, however I’m not moved to a particular emotional response beyond my love of the aesthetic of the song. I find it objectively beautiful rather than subjectively insightful; there’s no metaphor or turn of phrase to paint a familiar idea in a new, challenging or arresting way. Let me be clear though, that I’m not suggesting the lyrics carry no meaning. In fact my own personal inference is that they allude to an adulterous relationship; however I am of the opinion that this is secondary to the musical impact of the melody within the framework of the song. I’m also not suggesting that the lyrics don’t deserve to be pawed over and examined for meaning (as I’ve superficially just done myself) however the manner in which they have been arranged does not lend itself for an immediate lyrically driven emotional impact. The meaning of the lyrics in this situation is akin to the bonus content of a DVD; it’s available if you happen to be interested.
Where this argument carries weight for me is in the delivery of the lyrics. As a vocalist myself, I’m interested in examining how the delivery of lyrics can change the emotional resonance a song has with a listener. For the previously mentioned Grizzly Bearsong, I consciously chose to invest time in the lyrics. They are not immediately easy to hear and understand as enunciation isn’t key to their delivery, and there is no shortage of acts where it’s difficult to make out lyrics. My analysis of them began as something separate from the music of the song as a result of my own personal interest in lyrics in general. Put simply, I couldn’t really hear them properly and wanted to know what he was singing about. Perhaps it is simply my personal preference in this matter that separates my friends who never really listen to lyrics.
How then do artists deliver lyrics in such a way that I’m drawn to and moved by them? We often talk about how fantastic a singer’s voice can be but I don’t think anyone can attribute technical mastery to emotional engagement. I think Adele has a great voice but I’m not particularly enthused by any of her work. When I think of artists whose lyrics and delivery have had a serious impact on me I’m drawn in two directions as to why this happens. On the one hand, and for me the more obvious reason, I can identify strong personal attachment to the subject matter of a song from the singer. Two examples that spring to mind are Jackson Browne’s Song for Adam and Elbow’s Some Riot. Both songs deal with the death of a friend who has seemingly lost their way in life. Guy Garvey’s voice by default has a timbre that could give a shopping list gravitas and perhaps he has an unfair advantage over the rest of us as a result. Nonetheless, gravelly and worn, his voice literally starts breaking as he attempts to hit the falsetto of the line ‘Cos it’s breaking my heart, it’s breaking my heart, it’s breaking my heart to pull at the reins. Immediately he follows this up with a tired, weary but no less angry, Brother of mine don’t run with those fuckers. It’s a dramatic device that pays dividends when coupled with Garvey’s gift for lyrics and this is without touching on how the music contributes to the overall effect.
With Jackson Browne we can apply this same gift for lyrics but his delivery doesn’t use such a large vocal range or obvious dramatic devices to elicit an emotional response. Again, we’re dealing with a beautiful voice whose timbre complements the melody he has written exceptionally well, but he also takes particular care to enunciate every word only ever trailing off as he reaches the end of certain versus. The production consolidates Browne’s thoughtful delivery and places his voice front and center and atop the instrumentation. Browne’s intention to be heard while singing this song is undeniable and in stark contrast to the Grizzly Bear song I discussed earlier.
Let’s assume for a moment though, that using the death of a friend as lyrical inspiration is something of a cheat method, in that it is so emotionally charged that as a listener we’re bound to respond to it in some way regardless of the lyrics’ delivery. What then of grander and less tangible ideas that have no less of a thought provoking effect? Bill Callahan is expert at painting more abstract lyrical pictures in a similar way to Grizzly Bear From The River To The Ocean is a favourite of mine for the very reason that I find the lyrics completely beguiling even though they aren’t necessarily telling a straightforward emotional narrative but more a tapestry of ideas that pose everything from existential questions to simple snippets of love song. Despite the apparent thematic disschord in the lyrics, they are still the central experience of the song for me without having to take the time to dig into them at a separate moment as I might do with other artists such as Grizzly Bear or Radiohead.
Firstly, to make the distinction between Callahan and artists such as Garvey or Browne I’ll address the fact that while Callahan has an excellent and engaging voice it is of the acutely idiosyncratic type that threatens to over shadow the lyrics he is singing. A cursory look at some of Tom Waits’s recent output suffers from this in my opinion. I listen to his records to hear his growl rather than listen to his lyrics (though a notable exception is I’m Still here from Alice). His low American drawl often gives a weary or bored impression that could taint all of his output as apathetic laments, however this happily turns out not to be the case. The main refrain in the song is we are swimming in the rivers of the rains of our days before we knew and it’s hard to explain what I was doing or thinking before you and still never fails to impress me as a metaphor for fate and our struggle with the consequence of actions that we had nothing to do with. However, as I previously stated, I didn’t come to this conclusion from studying the sleeve notes and looking up the lyrics, but by being drawn into the song by Callahan’s delivery. Again, it’s Callahan’s intent to be heard, coupled with his unique voice that delivers layers of meaning to his impressionistic lyrics. His voice simultaneously carries the existential nature of the lyric as well as being able to use it as a device for expressing his love for someone.
I mentioned production briefly when talking about Jackson Browne and it would be disingenuous not to delve a little deeper into it as it plays a key role in changing the function of lyrics within the song. As with Jackson Browne, all the songs I’ve chosen to use as examples and, in fact any song that delivers an emotional impact through its lyrics, doesn’t embed the vocal within a song as if it were another instrument. When focusing on the rhythm and sound of lyrics you immediately treat the vocals as an instrument that needs to be considered within the arrangement of a piece rather than layering them on top of the musical track in a more traditional songwriting manner. In terms of rock and pop music, I’m inclined to believe that this is a more recent construction method despite having its roots firmly in traditions such as opera and choral arrangements.
Unfortunately for someone such as myself, who is constantly trying to find ways to make my lyrics resonate and convey the range of emotions that gave rise to them to begin with, the production is really the only element of the song writing process I truly have tangible control over when it comes to the impact of the lyrics. I’m stuck with the voice I have and whether or not that voice has the ability to carry the pathos I’m striving for isn’t up to me but up to the listener. Within reason, the lyrics can be abstract rather than direct and, as my Bill Callahan example illustrated, it shouldn’t make much of a difference if my intention is for the lyrics to be heard. However, just because I place my lyrics front and center in the production of a song doesn’t guarantee their emotional value; you only have to listen to a selection of middle of road yet successful singer/songwriters that are out there for evidence of this.
Ultimately it’s a shame that in general lyrics aren’t given the consideration I believe they deserve. Having them used as vehicles for melody and harmony is by no means a negative trait. I’ve done it numerous times myself, I love songs that do this, and I think it’s a skill unto itself, but it’s my experience that the impact it is possible to deliver from lyrics is far greater than music on its own. The human voice has always been a part of music and a vital method of communication, from story telling to a means to pass on history and culture, and it would be a crying shame if this came to an end.
I’m hoping that by delving into examples that are meaningful to me I’ve illuminated to some small degree the elements that go towards the effective delivery of lyrics in order to make an emotional impact. I also think the conclusions I’ve drawn can be applied to any artist that succeeds in effectively communicating emotion through lyrics. (I’m in no way insisting that my musical preferences are normative). Though I suppose the scarcity of artists who have the skill, be it learned or innate, to deliver lyrics in ways that truly resonate with listeners makes them all the more precious and worthy of our attention.