After reading the fascinating article on Joanna Newsom on the New York Times this weekend, I was reminded of the many artists I listen to because of the excellence of their lyrics. Joanna Newsom is definitely on that list, as is Nick Cave, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, and Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus.
Some writers have go-to tracks that influence them when they are trying for something angsty, hyperactive, full of longing, and so on. In these cases, the music is only there for atmospheric purposes and the lyrics fade into unimportance when compared to a throbbing bass line. But for me, I listen to music because I enjoy it, not because of what it brings to my writing.
Well, that’s a bit of a lie, because in examining song structure and lyrics -- in experiencing them -- you are looking at just another form of storytelling. Word choice, rhythm, beginnings and endings.
With Newsom, looking past the beauty of her harp playing and the intricacies of her compositions, you are left with her lyrics that range from the plaintive to the playful, along with soaring flights of fancy full of highbrow referents. The breadth of the vocabulary she employs, their placement in a song, is awe-inspiring. Don’t believe me? There’s a book published by Roan Press called ‘Visions of Joanna Newsom’ full of essays exploring her work. Here's 'Sawdust and Diamonds' from Ys:
Nick Cave is another artist I admire for his lyrics. First his output is impressive, with the Bad Seeds and before that with The Birthday Party. His lyrics are often imbued with tension, raw honesty, and undeniable masculinity. His storytelling is most obvious of course with Murder Ballads, and his most recent work with the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! is an album length exploration of the Lazarus story from the Bible. But each album has songs worthy of note and of further exploration. There is a reason this man is still making music! Here's 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' from Murder Ballads:
The Divine Comedy is a group out of Northern Ireland fronted by Neil Hannon. While retaining highbrow sensibilities, the songs are seeped in wit and joy. Song titles like ‘The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count’ and ‘Generation Sex’ only provide half the picture. While the Divine Comedy’s music is intentionally and unapologetically poppy, there is an earnestness in each song that entwines the jokes and jibes with thoughtful characters and meditations on 21st century living. 'The Gin Soaked Boy' is an excellent example of the tension between wit and earnestness in the Divine Comedy’s work:
Maybe it’s because Pavement is reuniting for a summer tour this year, but a discussion of song lyrics would not be complete without mentioning Stephen Malkmus. His lyrics focus on the irreverent and the non-sequitor, resulting in eternally quotable snippets that are still compelling. NPR currently highlights a handful of their songs thanks to their reunion tour and a best of soon to be released. Pay particular attention to 'Stereo' and 'Shady Lane.' Malkmus's solo albums are just as compelling... Here's the video for 'Jenny and the Ess-Dog,' from his self-titled debut.
There are other songwriters out there, of course, who are just as amazing with three and a half to five minutes of music. But these are the ones I keep returning to.