Sunday 15 February 2015

Waxing lyrical

Browsing the music section in a vast London bookshop the other day, I came across a volume called ‘Lit Up Inside’. It had a plain cover and looked like a slim, austere collection of verse – the uniform, in fact, of its publisher Faber & Faber’s prestigious poetry imprint. Instead, though, it was a selection of Van Morrison’s lyrics. Sensing one of my eyebrows move northwards, I picked it up and had a flick through. Quite a few of the pages seemed to contain this kind of content:

This may remind some longer-toothed readers of Smash Hits magazine, which printed the words to the hits of the day verbatim, no matter how extreme the ‘ooh / ahh’ content, and seemingly always ending with a desperate, helpless “Repeat, and ad lib to fade”. (I still remember reading the lyrics to Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ and succumbing to a kind of low-grade hypnosis.)

I’m a fair-weather Van fan, and adore some of his songs. But surely the point of his most sublime, ecstatic tracks are the repetition, the extemporisation even beyond words in places, against the most lush and warming of musical backdrops. As lyrics – sung, consumed in the manner intended, they take flight. On the page – they die.

And I even rather like lyric books. The most desirable, I think, are those that use the words (usually in the CD booklet already, anyway) as a hook for something else. The fannish indulgence, say, of the colossal illustrated tome, such as the new Dylan volume which needs a team of handlers and a concrete coffee table to support it. Or the horror-cliché of the recent Ian Curtis book, a chilling, grey slab.

Then there are those more elusive editions that slot into the artist’s overall aesthetic – that allow you to read ‘across’ their albums quickly and get inside their head. I’m thinking here of some off-mainstream issues like the early Nick Cave collections ‘King Ink’ I & II – which felt like the print had bled onto the page – or Lloyd James’s superb book of lyrics for his band Naevus, ‘Slopped Down from Eden’.

So, was my distaste for the Van hardback purely a matter of branding? Possibly. Faber had also put out a similar volume of Jarvis Cocker lyrics. I don’t think the intent can be mis-read or mistaken: we are being told that Van and Jarvis are poets.

I remember Simon Armitage (an ‘actual’ poet, also with Faber) saying in an interview once that none of these folk – the Cohens, the Dylans – fit that job description, and I thought he was just being grumpy or defensive. But I see things a bit differently now. It’s not a case of lyrics being too ‘lowbrow’ to be considered poetry. It’s more that by absorbing lyrics into the massive poetic canon, you downplay and dismiss the art of writing songwords.

Poetry makes language work harder, to compress ideas with economy and grace, to find a deeper meaning that carves itself more sharply into the reader’s brain. Poets enable words to create their own rhythm and melody. This is why verse that already exists as poetry often works well in a musical environment. Classical song (Schubert’s lieder, say) revolves around settings of poetry, but more modern examples are there: Yeats has found his way recently into both rock (the Waterboys) and jazz (Christine Tobin). The words don’t even need to be ‘set’ – sometimes supporting music underpins the resonance of the spoken word. This can range from beats like Ginsberg accompanying their own recitals, to the punk poetry of John Cooper Clarke, right through to Matt Howden’s sublime string soundtracks to his father KeithHowden’s powerful readings of his own verse.

But a lyricist sets out to do something completely different and equally valuable. The words they write must merge and unite with the music to lift both parts into a memorable whole. Look at possibly the UK’s most famous and celebrated lyricist – Morrissey. Would the verse he writes ‘make sense’ if issued simply in print? – I’d argue, on the whole, no. It would look a little like soundbites, quotations, or rearranged prose. But he manipulates the words to work solely as lyrics:

  • He repeats key phrases over and over at the catchiest and most memorable points in the song, to cement the earworm (“If they don’t believe me now....” from ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side’, “Life is very long when you’re lonely” from ‘The Queen is Dead’).
  • He gabbles phrases that don’t scan to give them urgency and bite (the “criminally vulgar” shyness in ‘How Soon is Now?’, “Did you see the jealousy in the eyes of the ones who had to stay behind?” in ‘London’).
  • He leaves phrases hanging, unresolved, letting the music, surrounding words or even the song title do the work. “Sister, I’m a...” (Poet). One of his addressees is anything but ‘Pregnant’ for the last time in the song. “Death for no reason” – Meat – “is murder”. Does he actually articulate the words ‘Rubber Ring’ in the track or does the circling melody between the verses make you somehow understand it?
  • Given that he supplied words and a melody line to backing demos supplied by Marr in The Smiths (I assume he still works the same way with his songwriting partners), his ability to match subject matter to mood is extraordinary: the sinister lope of ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, the carousel whirl of ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, the agitated unease and explosion of anguish in ‘Girl Afraid’.
Your favourite lyricist will almost certainly withstand the same focus. Play through some of Kate Bush’s best-known songs and notice how every syllable of ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a plea; how the lines of ‘Houndsof Love’ start quickly with short syllables then halt, the language of second guesses and stumbles; how the lyrics of ‘The Dreaming’ are rhythmically rigid to align with the warping note of a digeridoo; how the words in ‘Breathing’ are themselves clipped as the lungs run out of air.

Or Paul Simon. The easy flow of ‘St Judy’s Comet’ as the words become their own lullaby; how the lyrics of ‘Hearts and Bones’ are always pulled back to the higher note, first at a kind of half-speed, then twice as frequently, then, always, to the ‘arc of a love affair’. Again, his use of repetition to flag when a thought is worth having twice – the insistent “The cross is in the ballpark” of ‘The Obvious Child’.

What it comes down to is this: you don’t need to dress lyrics up as poetry to know when they’re great. You just need the records.

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