“We need each other, Wordman. We go together, you and me. Like words and music.”
Lyrics matter. Sure, it’s possible to write catchy songs, fun songs, cool songs with stupid words, but that’s not art. For music to be elevated into something more than a beat, something more than a tune, the lyrics need to mean something.
Not every song with great lyrics needs to examine the temporal nature of life, or delve into the inner workings of metaphysics or postmodernism. There needn’t be big words, or impressive metaphors, or a complex rhyming scheme. Just like the parameters for great instrumental music, painting, poetry and photography are virtually limitless, so it is with song lyrics. There have been fantastic lyrics written about pretty girls, cars, dogs, parties, airports, whatever. A good lyricist doesn’t need an arts degree. What they do need is so broad as to be indefinable.
My two favorite lyricists of all time are Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe, and they couldn’t be more different in terms of style, approach, technique or results.
Springsteen is a storyteller: direct, literal and sparse. His language is populist. He views himself as a descendent of Guthrie and Dylan – a folkie who just happens to like loud electric guitars. Using detail-rich portraits, he uses small scenarios and individual characters to speak to large themes. And he’s not shy about spelling out those themes in boldface.
Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
Long accused of harboring an obsession with the American experience, Springsteen cares about his role as a cultural reporter. He tries to make sense of the ever-changing political and economic landscape, and offer his view on our roles as citizens within that framework. It sounds dry, but it’s not. Mostly because all his songs are still about girls and cars.
Indeed, Springsteen’s metaphors are never confusing. You don’t need to study the subtext of his songs to figure out what they’re about.
Now, my ma, she fingers her wedding band
And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could, but he just can’t
Well if I could, I swear I know just what I’d do
Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again
In his later years, Springsteen has crossed the line from direct to obvious too frequently. He’s too often abandoned small character pieces for sweeping generalizations, relying too much on grand but simple words like “love,” “faith,” and “hope.”
But when he’s on, there’s still no one better at writing a song that hits you in that place only music can hit. His best songs make you wish you were somewhere else, someone else, while still reaffirming the joy and necessary pain of being alive.
Well there’s just a spark of campfire left burning
Two kids in a sleeping bag beside
I reach ‘neath your shirt, lay my hands across your belly
And feel another one kickin’ inside
I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time
Michael Stipe does not write about highways and boardwalks. R.E.M. songs are esoteric, abstract, emotional. Their early work, in particular, is filled with images that don’t make literal sense, and collections of scenes rather than narrative stories. Like Springsteen embodying the Jersey Shore (pre-Snooki), Stipe’s songs have a very certain, specific sense of place, calling to mind the American South. Stipe’s aim is to evoke particular feelings in each individual, allowing listeners to bring their own biases to form interpretations.
Put your hair back, we get to leave
Eleven gallows on your sleeve
Shallow figure, winner’s paid
Eleven shadows way out of place
Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room
As Stipe grew older and more confident in his writing abilities, he became more direct, more willing to extend particular ideas across entire songs rather than limiting them to a line or a verse. But, unlike Springsteen, even at his most direct and connective, Stipe rarely comes right out and says exactly what he means (there are exceptions, such as “Everybody Hurts”). And he’s much more likely to tell stories from unique points of view, as opposed to Springsteen, who is almost always the narrator or the hero.
“You are lost and disillusioned,”
What an awful thing to say
I know this show doesn’t flatter
It means nothing to me
I thought I might help them understand
But what an ugly thing to see
“I am not an animal”
Subtitled under the screen
And even in his later period, Stipe is prone to stream-of-consciousness, and the closest Springsteen gets to that is listing engine parts.
A paper weight, junk garage
A wedding ring, a honey pot
Crazy, all the lovers have been tagged
A hotline, a wanted ad
It’s crazy what you could’ve had
You would think Stipe’s style would be easier to emulate than Springsteen’s: just throw some cool images and words together, moan a little, and call it a day. You’d be wrong. When I was a youngish teenager writing poetry in bed at 3 a.m., I tried to write like Michael Stipe. I was terrible at it. When I was an older teenager writing song lyrics for my imaginary band, I tried to write like Bruce Springsteen, and I was at least passable.
But we need both archetypes, the Stipe and the Springsteen. The abstract and the literal. Most of my favorite songwriters fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of our increasingly fragmented musical culture is that lyrics seem to matter less to most people. All the mp3 blogs and music review sites are so obsessed with finding, tracking and documenting the latest sounds and trends that the words fall by the wayside. But there are some wonderful lyricists working today, and they deserve our attention. I’m not talking about Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others from generations past. Everyone already knows they’re great. Who are the best lyric-writers alive and under 50?
A few caveats:
- Great lyrics are only great if the music is great too. No one wants to hear amazing poetry scored to shitty background music. So, if Toby Keith or Taylor Swift is secretly writing inspiring lyrics, I’m sorry in advance. You won’t get notice here.
- While it’s not easy to find the right words that sound cool when set to a certain song, I’m looking for more than just “sounds cool.” I want some meaning.
- Hip hop is a whole different ballgame. Hip hop lyrics need to be both more and less than pop lyrics, and they merit an entirely separate analysis. Probably by someone who knows a lot more about hip hop than I do.
- Vocal style shouldn’t matter when strictly considering lyrics, but it does. It’s impossible to separate the two.
- A track record of some length is necessary to establish a consistent level of quality: at least a couple albums.
That being said, here’s who’s writing good these days:
Craig Finn, The Hold Steady
Finn is an obvious choice, and not only because he’s such a direct descendant of Springsteen. If the Boss had allowed his interest in Catholicism to turn into a full-blown obsession, only written songs about Wild Billy and Crazy Janey, and taken himself 75% less seriously, he’d be Finn.
Youth and inebriation provided early themes for Finn, and he’s allowed those themes to expand and progress into songs about aging, violence, depression and the nature of art. Hyper-literate, wordy and fun, Finn’s songs celebrate the very vices they criticize, and lament the aspects of human nature they praise.
Early Hold Steady songs could barely contain Finn’s mad bursts of pop culture references, aphorisms and withering critiques of scenesters. Over the years, the band has molded its sound to Finn, and Finn has edited his lyrics to better fit the musical space they inhabit. The result is less unique, less exhilarating, but still more compelling than anything else out there.
Key songs: Knuckles, Cattle and the Creeping Things, Stuck Between Stations, First Night
She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian
She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend
She likes the warm feeling but she’s tired of all the dehydration
Most nights are crystal clear
But tonight it’s like she’s stuck between stations
Will Sheff, Okkervil River
Sheff has improved mightily from Okkervil’s earliest work. Beginning with 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, he’s moved past standard alt-country Americana fare, carving out a unique identity.
Black Sheep Boy was a concept album based on a Tim Hardin song focused on a rough-hewn outcast character. Sheff followed that up with The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, two albums focused on pop cultural ephemera – the forgotten, shadowy figures we take for granted while enjoying our daily intake of music, TV and porn.
Sheff’s songs are emotional to the point of being maudlin, but his eye for character details saves him every time. There’s no one better at empathizing with the characters he creates.
Key songs: For Real, Unless It’s Kicks, Lost Coastlines
I’m discussed with desire by the guys who conspire
At the only decent bar in town
And they drink MGDs
And they wish they had me
Like I wish I had fire
What a sad way to be
What a girl who got tired
Adam Duritz, Counting Crows
It’s easy to overrate Duritz’s lyrics because of the quality of his voice. His plaintive, haunting wail makes anything sound deeper than it actually is.
But it’s also easy to underrate Duritz, because he’s in the Counting Crows, who have never garnered the critical respect they deserve. Duritz is as versatile a lyricist as the Crows are limited as a band. He’s not confined to particular themes or character types. Like Sheff, he moved past fairly standard Americana imagery and into deeper stuff, including meditations on fame, death and the relationship between the two.
Key songs: Round Here, Hard Candy, Up All Night (Frankie Miller goes to Hollywood)
Thought I might get a rocket ride
When I was a child
But it was a lie
That I told myself when I needed something good
At 17 had a better dream
Now I’m 33 and it isn’t me
But I’d think of something better if I could
Another case of the vocalist overshadowing the lyricist, and it’s hard to blame anyone who doesn’t pay attention to the words Case is singing, because Jesus, what a voice.
Case began her career as a torch singer, but has gotten progressively weirder over the years, and has spent the last two albums examining every dark crevice of human nature. And what car metaphors are to Bruce Springsteen, animal metaphors are to Case. She dwells in the natural world like a twisted version of a Romantic poet.
Key songs: Set Out Running, The Tigers Have Spoken, This Tornado Loves You
My true love drowned
In a dirty old pan of oil
That did run from the block
Of a Falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive
Rhett Miller, The Old 97s/Solo
Decidedly less serious than others on this list, Miller’s lyrics tend toward the erudite, playful and lovelorn. But a common thread emerges, as Miller has grown exponentially as a songwriter as he’s strayed from his alt-country origins. He was a good mimic of country writers, penning tales of trains and whiskey. But he’s much better exploring love and heartbreak in their infinite strange iterations.
Now, as a solo artist, Miller is in danger of becoming too generic as his songs become more pop and less rock. But he’s as clever and witty as any songsmith out there, and his sly, winking approach makes up for many a misstep.
Key songs: Barrier Reef, Rollerskate Skinny, Our Love
This is the story of Victoria Lee,
She started off on Percodan and ended up with me.
She lived in Berkeley ’til the earthquake shook her loose.
She lives in Texas now where nothin’ ever moves.
Hutch Harris, The Thermals
The third artist on this list to have released a concept album (along with Craig Finn and Will Sheff), Harris is more explicitly political than almost any other writer in the “indie” genre (loosely defined as any music likely to be reviewed by Pitchfork).
The Thermals’ third album, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, was a revelation, a raging screed about religion and modern America. They followed that up with 2009’s Now We Can See, which amped up the disdain and hopelessness, and spread them around varying topics.
Key songs: Here’s Your Future, St. Rosa and the Swallows, Now We Can See
God told his son it’s time to come home
I promise you won’t have to die all alone
I need you to pay for the sins I create
His son said, “I will but Dad, I’m afraid”
Aimee Mann, ‘Til Tuesday/Solo
Plain-spoken and bitter, Mann serves as the template for the modern female singer-songwriter. She writes the best breakup songs around, and positions herself firmly as an outsider observing a fucked-up society, yet still impacted by all its foibles.
Magnolia brought her well-deserved attention, but she’s continued to toil away in relative obscurity in the years since, writing well-crafted minor masterpieces.
Key songs: Save Me, Wise Up, I’ve Had It, 31 Today
Oh, for the sake of momentum
Even though I agree with that stuff about seizing the day
But I hate to think of effort expended
All those minutes and days and hours
I have frittered away
Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo/Wilco
OK, so it’s become painfully apparent that I love alt-country bands who grow into something more. Guilty.
Tweedy is expert at both small, detail-oriented character sketches (specializing in damaged relationships) and broader reaching statements. His career as a writer has followed an arc from ordinary to delightfully weird and (unfortunately) back to ordinary, on Wilco’s last two albums. Here’s hoping he finds a way to access the pain and frustration that led to the prolific string in the middle of his career, without losing whatever personal happiness he’s gained.
Key songs: Misunderstood, She’s a Jar, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Back in your old neighborhood
And the cigarettes taste so good
Britt Daniels, Spoon
Daniels has a tendency to fall into the “Words sound cool, but don’t necessarily mean much” category, but he makes this list because when he does put together a cohesive song, it’s almost always fantastic. And the words he uses sound really cool (even with the unfortunate British accent (TM Billie Joe Armstrong).
Daniels writes about three main subjects, though not exclusively: girls, art and himself. It’s the songs about art that stand out, the ones that push deeper than most music about music itself. Daniels examines what being an artist means in the 21st century – it sounds terrible but I promise it’s not.
Key songs: Fitted Shirt, The Beast and Dragon Adored, I Turn My Camera On, The Way We Get By
Memphis comes creeping down my back
Somehow this place tastes just like an attack
A hundred-yard-stare of a kiss
Lord, I know I’ll never miss it
They told me stop scouting the field
They told me have a look in commercial appeal
And start getting that hair cut sharp
James Mercer, The Shins
The most esoteric lyricist on this list, the closed anyone comes to Michael Stipe’s style, Mercer uses language and precise wording more than he uses particular images. He’s also improved through the course of three albums, so I’m eagerly awaiting the fourth.
Key songs: Kissing the Lipless, Saint Simon, Australia
The gutter may profess its love
Then follow it with hesitation
For there are just so many of
You out there for rent