It’s a little ironic that lyrics are often the most throw-away part of modern songs. It’s often more about the music, or the voice, or even the look and outfit (or lack of one) of the singer. The words can be overlooked at times, especially when they don’t carry the power to over-ride the theatrics.
But there are some songwriters that have a wonderful knack to sum up much in one short song. It’s like poetry in many ways, including the way in which the words are beautifully fitted into the music’s rhythm. An ability to paint pictures with so few words is impressive.
The Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly is for me a prime example of this. His lyrics have been published in two books, Lyrics and Don’t Start Me Talking, and they are very readable, often evoking mini stories.
He has an ability to write from different points of view – women’s, children’s, indigenous people, even the voice of someone who has woken from a drunken night out to find he may have murdered his partner (I’m pretty sure this wasn’t a real experience for the songwriter!) in the song I Don’t Remember a Thing.
And you get carried along with the story, even when the ending is ambivalent, such as the haunting Everything’s Turning to White (his song version of the Raymond Chandler short story, So Much Water So Close to Home). Carver’s short story is a powerful example of clean-cut writing that makes you see and feel these characters within 2367 words. Kelly distils the essence of the story down to 335 words, sung in his slightly rough, mournful, folky voice.
These types of songs are so much more than the basic ‘I love you/him/her’, or the more explicit ‘Baby you’re so sexy’ types of songs that are repeated ad nauseum over the years in minor variants. A true songwriter can leave you wanting to know more – what happened? Is this based on a real story?
The Australian band Cold Chisel’s song Flame Trees, lyrics by Don Walker, makes me think about the local knowledge that is sometimes needed to completely relate to or understand a song – the trees are Illawarra Flame Trees, common on Australia’s east coast and often used along streets of small country towns, with their flashy red flowers. But the rest of the song could refer to anyone in the world returning to their small home town where ‘there’s no change, there’s no pace, everything remains in its place’.
And neither Paul Kelly nor Jimmy Barnes (Cold Chisel’s lead singer) have the most beautiful singing voices in the world (sorry guys!), but they both tell a great tale – perhaps it’s the grainy roughness in their voices that works to convey their stories, rather than the polished quality of other singers.
It can’t always just be about sharing a cultural background with the songwriter, either, as some have the ability to make you hear and feel something totally out of your experience. Like this one by Bruce Springsteen, Meeting Across the River, which, just reading it, makes me picture a hapless loser planning a better-not-fail crime that will impress his girlfriend: “She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking”.
Hmm, I seem to have a thing for gritty, dark lyrics by male songwriters, all of whom started singing in the last century! Perhaps there’s something in the melancholy that really appeals to my imagination. So here’s a female songwriter who’s also known for her melancholic lyrics plus ethereal voice, just to mix it up…
Joni Mitchell’s California reminds me of my own travels and homesickness as well as evoking the hippie trail of the late 60s/early 70s. And the famous Big Yellow Taxi about not knowing what you’ve got til it’s gone – with its sharp environmental warning that sadly still rings true, plus a little lament for lost love thrown in for good measure.
Of course, it’s all so esoteric – one lyric may evoke an image in my mind that leaves no impression on yours, and vice versa. And yes, there would be many more great examples (including some more modern songwriters) but this is not a list, just exploring an idea. Tell me a few of your favourites and I’ll look them up!
Bring on the storytelling singer – they get our imaginations going with their words, not with dirty dancing or a lack of clothing 🙂