Let’s Get Lyrical

The Let’s Get Lyrical campaign was born of a desire to combine Edinburgh’s status as an official City of Literature, with Glasgow’s as a City of Music.  There are events being held throughout February and it will come as no surprise to discover that they are a bit of a step up from the dreary indie pish I usually feature on these pages.

As you can imagine, there are an awful lot of scholarly things that can be written about this topic and, as you can probably also imagine, you aren’t going to read them here.  Nothing about all the value of oral traditions, the role of lyrics in folk music, or even the emotional impact of the details of the lyrics versus the more abstract emotions generated by the music – I have stuff to say about all of these things, but I am down visiting my folks in London at the moment, so settling in to write an essay would be considered somewhat uncouth, I suspect.

Instead, I have picked six fairly random songs by six of my favourite lyricists, and will write just a little bit about why they resonate with me so much.  I find it amazing how important I can find lyrics – to the extent that I would suggest that music can make you love a song, but only lyrics can make it a part of your soul – and yet there are vast swathes of my music collection where I am neither aware of, nor particularly interested in the lyrics.  A lot of the time they’re just plain indecipherable, and in the absence of liner notes in the digital age, tracking them down seems like an awful lot of work and I rarely do it; I doubt I am alone.

What it tends to take is a particular hook.  I hear a phrase which snags me, and then I am pulled in.  But for a lot of music I am happy enough for that not to happen, and just to enjoy the tunes.  When you really do connect with the lyrics, though, the impact of a song changes totally.

Eef Barzelay – The Ballad of Bitter Honey (Amazon)

Eef Barzelay, whether with Clem Snide or solo, has written some of the best, cleverest, wryest, most cutting lyrics I have ever heard.  This is the man responsible for the phrase ‘the root canal music of a prom night disaster’, but this song might just be his greatest.  Written from the point of view of a dancer whose ‘ass you saw bouncing next to Ludacris’ it manages to create the portrait of a sweet natured, shallow girl trying her very, very best to wring some sense of self-worth out of life, and failing.  Horribly.  It manages a particularly remarkable trick of being at once utterly excoriating in its description of the mores of the modern world, and yet tenderly sympathetic of the person who both embodies them and bears their burden.  So much sympathy and so much rage.  But that’s Eef Barzelay for you.

Eef Barzelay – The Ballad of Bitter Honey

Barton Carroll – Shadowman (Amazon)

I don’t know how closely this song draws from real life, but this is a portrait of an over-shadowed, jealous and weak younger brother so well constructed and harrowing as to make me feel a little bit sick every time I hear it. As I have written many times before when describing this song, the absence of any shred of redemption is just plain merciless.  Very few people in pop music seem to have the sensitivity to construct such a believable relationship and such a real protagonist as this, and yet also the courage to eschew the mandatory happy ending.  It really is a brutally nasty, mean song.

Barton Carroll – Shadowman

Songdog – Gene Autry’s Ghost (Amazon)

Songdog are a different kettle of fish.  Their lyrics are cryptic, clever and acerbic.  I remember listening to the start of this song, tum-te-tumming along, and suddenly doing a double-take.  ‘What the fuck did they just say?’  I rewound the song and yes, they really did sing: “I’m nobody special, but I give pretty good head.” Songdog do this all the time.  They are dark, horribly (by which, of course, I mean awesomely) cynical and you always get the impression that you are a step or two behind what they are trying to tell you.  There’s such resignation to the music that this never seems pretentious or condescending however, just the work of a band who are woefully underappreciated and seem to have stopped expecting you to get it.

Songdog – Gene Autry’s Ghost

Billy Bragg – The Saturday Boy (Amazon)

I must be one of thousands of young men who heard this song and thought ‘Fucking hell, that was me!  I am the Saturday Boy!’ Billy Bragg does this all the time, particularly in his early work, and this is far from alone in its ability to absolutely and utterly nail what it feels like to be male and lacking in both sexual confidence and skills.  Almost every man I know has in his past a girl on whom they had the most unspeakable crush and who, for all she may have enjoyed our company as much as the attention, had about as much intention of going out with us as she did of flying to the moon.  The closing line sums it up so well: “While she was giving herself for free/ At a party to which I was never invited”.  People think of Bragg as a bit of a caricature of himself these days, but that’s massively unfair.  Political songs aside, his love songs show a writer more gifted than anyone I know at taking all sorts of complex emotions, and entanglements and distilling them into a single line, full of warmth, a bit of humour and, most of all, the knowledge that he absolutely, undoubtedly Got It.

Billy Bragg – The Saturday Boy

The Mountain Goats – Dance Music (Amazon)

I am not a particularly committed fan of Darnielle’s wider canon, but The Sunset Tree is a stone cold classic.  There are a lot of tender, heartwarming  and heartbreaking moments on the record, but one of those stop-dead-in-your-tracks moments occurs early in this short, perfect song.  Coming from a stable family background as I do, I would never be so stupid as to suggest that I can really grasp the kind of domestic horror described here: “I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings/ while my step father yells at my mother./ launches a glass across the room, straight at her head/ and I dash upstairs to take cover./ lean in close to my little record player on the floor./ so this is what the volume knob’s for.” It is short, direct, unflinching and does what all great writing should: finds not just details, but the one crucial detail.  I remember that one short verse bringing me so much clarity: the violence, the fear, the intense relationship with music.  I am sure I still don’t entirely grasp what this kind of life is really like, but this song has done more for my understanding than any advertising campaign or newspaper article I have ever come across.

The Mountain Goats – Dance Music

Tom Waits – Fish and Bird (Amazon)

In this particular case, it is not so much just about the lyrics themselves, as the personal context.  I bought Alice just as Mrs. Toad and I were getting together and listened to it constantly.  She lived in Edinburgh, I in London, and we went back and forth every couple of weeks – it was a rather improbable romance in many ways, but a complete whirlwind nevertheless.  It was pretty obvious to both of us, I think, that this was something special, but as the months wore on it slowly became clearer and clearer that resolving our geographical problem was going to be a very, very significant challenge.  Mrs. Toad was a touch more spooked by this than I was and the relationship suddenly became very, very shaky indeed – you know when you can hear the tension in someone’s voice and you know that something is up, even if you can’t dig the details out of them. Anyway, after Christmas of the first year of our relationship she decided she couldn’t face it and packed it all in, putting an end to over a month of looming unease which had taken the shine off eight months of thrilled, giddy romance.  Fortunately for me (and her I suppose) she saw the error of her ways two or three months later and came crawling (hey, this is my story, so that’s how I’m telling it okay – so what if it wasn’t exactly crawling per se, but I digress…) back.  However, in those months before she saw sense I was trying to come to terms with the fact that it seemed I had lost the girl I was absolutely certain I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  And I drank gin and listened to this song.  A lot.

Tom Waits – Fish and Bird
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