In my last blog post, I mentioned that one of the main things that attracted me to Folk music was the fact that the lyrics are actually about something. So it astonishes me the number of people who simply don’t listen to the lyrics at all. An erstwhile gentleman caller once doomed himself by dismissing my entire musical output as follows: “I did try to listen to it, yes, but it was a bit distracting.” I understand now that different people use music for different purposes, and I’m definitely not still bitter about it (honest!), but it does explain why some artists manage to reach stratospheric levels of fame while still sickeningly young, before they’ve gained even half enough life experience to write anything wise or meaningful. After all, nobody writes a bestselling novel at the age of 16, do they? (Or do they? As always, willing to be corrected!) To quote one of my first ever songs,”The Innocents”:
“I’ll need to live a little more / Before I write a song worth crying for”.
(That would be three years later, when my voice disappeared just as we were about to record “Narcissus Under the Knife”, and it took three separate recording sessions to perfect it.)
(And I promise this whole article isn’t just going to be quotes from my own songs!)
But I digress.
In any case, I’m one of those people who think lyrics are important – what’s more, they can have a huge and lasting effect, just as much as poetry. So I’d like to share with you some of the lyrics that have stayed with me over the years, be it because they’re funny, clever, comforting, or just seem to explain the human condition perfectly. I tend to keep my cards very close to my chest, as a general rule – in fact, my own songs are often the closest you’ll get to my real thoughts and feelings, and even then they’re veiled in about 7 layers of metaphor, transferred onto literary characters and then set in a Dystopian future, or something. So hopefully, showing you these lyrics will help me to be a bit less of an aloof ninny:
“Try not to look at you in the shoe, but the eyes – find the eyes…”
Franz Ferdinand – The Dark of the Matinee
This is a wonderfully atmospheric song about how the lead bloke used to bunk off school to go to the cinema (the girl he meets there may or may not be fabricated). I’d really recommend looking up the lyrics, because the whole thing is just poetry. In fact, one of my friends wanted to quote Franz Ferdinand in a General Studies exam about how pop bands were becoming the modern poets, but the only lyrics of theirs she could think of were “I love your friends, they’re all so arty.” (That’s an A level that’s never done either of us a jot of good).
But most of all, this song marks that moment at the start of the 2004 indie revolution when I realized there was hope for modern music after all (and all my classmates started buying scooters and those bags with targets on them).
“And our prayers were answered / When we wrote these songs and we lost our minds”
Slow Club – All Our Most Brilliant Friends
Something a lot of musicians can sympathise with, I think!
“Stop taking chances with the ammunition in your pants.”
Beth Jeans Houghton – Franklin Benedict
Another universally relatable statement…
“All roads lead back to you / Like some flesh-coated Rome.”
Trembling Bells – Torn Between Loves
I just love the sheer audacity of such surprising and unsettling lyrics. A fellow musician, Matt Bradshaw, talks about “bucket words”, words used over and over again in pop songs (arms, charms, love, above, broken heart, apart) that you can just pick out of a bucket to instantly write a plausible-sounding song. And I think both he and I agree that strange, unconventional lyrics are often very effective in jarring an indolent audience out of their reverie and making them sit up and properly pay attention to a song. Also, if you like prog folk, Trembling Bells are AMAZING – think Sandy Denny accompanied by a psychedelic mushroom-fuelled rock band, and you’re only halfway there…
“I’ve got this lingering feeling / Like I’ve slipped between the fingers of the century / I know you know what I mean.”
Anais Mitchell – Of a Friday Night
This song is the only thing that’s managed to adequately describe this feeling – not so much imagining what a place would have been like in the past, but seeing the layers and layers of eras and different people who came and went over this spot, all superimposed on top of each other, and somehow being both there and in the past at the same time – just go and listen to it. She also wrote a Dystopian bluegrass version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Hadestown”, so, you know, you probably ought to go and listen to that, too.
“If you’re falling apart, well, that’s only entropy, like the death of a star.”
Borderville – The Anchor (From the album “Metamorphosis”)
That’s just some lovely phrasing. Also, anyone who’s going to write a theatrical rock opera version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is going to earn my grudging respect.
“Time will rub out the pencil lines, and you’ll be remembered.”
Laura Hocking – Pencil Lines
This song sketches a lovely vignette about a couple whose slightly ungainly first encounter will be idealised by the passage of time. In the final verse, what first appeared to be a romantic encounter is revealed to be a portrait sitting, a nice twist that renders the metaphor literal – as clever, wry and cerebral as all her songs. In a way, it was Laura Hocking that inspired me to start writing my own music. I used to have a handmade cuddly toy stall in the corner of Sunday Roast in Oxford, an alternative live music night on Sunday evenings, part of the indie-twee movement of 2007 that I’ve always found inexplicably comforting. I didn’t really pay attention to her set at the time (I was, presumably, too busy selling cuddly lobsters and nautiluses), but something must have got me, because the next day I looked up her music and realised what was possible. She seemed to be pretty successful for a while, too, but then suddenly disappeared. Two years ago I sent a long, embarrassing fan message to her personal Facebook page on what happened to be Valentine’s Day, telling her all this and asking what she was doing now. I hope she never saw it, but if you’re out there, Laura – sorry, I’m not really mad, honest!
“That plate’s in the same place I left it before, when the world seemed so sure.”
Faceometer – OK, So That Happened
Faceometer (AKA Will), fellow Midlands bizarrington and the only musician capable of fitting more words into a line than me, has managed to do the impossible with this song, and make my eyes leak. “A song about sitting in an identical place when something’s changed”, as Will puts it, is full of hopeful happiness for the future and all the possibilities it presents. And, as someone who has, in the past, experienced life as a series of slamming doors and missed opportunities, that hope used to make me very sad. But now it makes my eyes leak for more positive reasons. Silly eyes.
Right, now I’ve told you all of mine, what are your favourite song lyrics, and why? I’d love to hear them!