A Look at Song and Lyric Writing Part 1: 10 Personal Lyrical Favorites 1-5

Are great lyrics a necessity to a really great song? Some people would claim yes, and for some songs that may be true. I don't make this claim though because often time there is too much emphasis put on the lyrics and not enough put on the originality of the music, style or feel. Instead, I think amazing lyrical lines can be a great part of a song, but it is really the sum of the whole that makes the song good or bad. That doesn't make song lyrics completely beyond study though...

As someone who is obsessed with music, I've spent a fair amount of my younger days listening to song lyrics and attempting to find some sort of deep philosophical meaning. Sometimes I found something and other times they were just song lyrics, but I looking back at some of my favorite lyrics now there are some definite trends to what strikes me lyrically and what falls flat.

I'm not going to claim to be a lyricist, songwriter, poet or anything of that nature, nor will I subject you to any of my own feeble attempts at intricate wordplay in lyrical form, but I think I've listened to enough music in my day to hear thousands of lyrics and know what I like and what I don't. For this piece, I thought I'd take a look at some of the lyrics that have stood out over the years for me, why I like them and maybe give a little insight into some new lyrical techniques for all you would be songwriters out there.

Some are from well known songwriters, others are less than well known and they span the years as I tried to get a variety for examples. As always, this isn't any sort of definitive list, just some personal favorites and are in no particular order.

1. "Something" - The Beatles

I don't think any list about anything related to songwriting would be complete without mentioning at least one song by the Beatles, but for this one I chose to steer clear of the typical Lennon/McCartney arena and go for one of my favorites by George Harrison. Over all this is a pretty beautiful song, but the part that really strikes me are these middle lines:

"You’re asking me will my love grow,
I don’t know, I don’t know.
You stick around now it may show,
I don’t know, I don’t know"

I don't think there can be a more honest statement about love, capturing in just a few words something completely real. Honesty in lyrics is important especially when it's done subtly and in simple words and I think Harrison captures a completely honest moment in this simple middle section of an already beautiful song and makes it that much more authentic.

2. "Do" - The White Stripes

I consider Jack White's lyrics some of the most honest I've heard in a long time but they're not over the top and show a unique sense of word play as well that makes them really stay with me. Take "Do" for example and this line:

"and then my idols walk next to me
i look up at them they fade away
it's a destruction of a mystery
the more i listen to what they say
so does that mean that there's no more doin'
and there's no more thinkin'
and there's no more feeling
cause there's no right opinion
so can you tell me what i'm supposed to do"

These are not overtly poetic lyrics like some other writers, they're straight forward, direct and yet very subtly cryptic and thought provoking. Combined with their honest feel makes for something that reminds me that lyrics surely don't need to be immensely complex in their word choice to convey a very deep message.

3. "Muzzle" - The Smashing Pumpkins

This entire song could be quoted as an anthem for those of us who grew up during the grunge era. The lyrics just have that "anthemic" quality that will speak to so many as they talk openly about life, death etc etc. I especially like the ending lines:

"And I knew the meaning of it all
And I knew the distance to the sun
And I knew the echo that is love
And I knew the secrets in your spires
And I knew the emptiness of youth
And I knew the solitude of heart
And I knew the murmurs of the soul
And the world is drawn into your hands
And the world is etched upon your heart
And the world so hard to understand
Is the world you can't live without
And I knew the silence of the world"

Where sometimes simplicity works best, other times poetic imagery is a better choice and Billy Corgan's word choice is both poetically beautiful, cryptic and subtle at the same time. All of these things "he knew" have actual meanings and recall actual images but in the context they're used they have new meanings as well and are subtle enough that they just beg for deeper thoughts about some very deep ideas... like the meaning of life. These phrases still have enough authenticity that you don't get swallowed up by them, a trap that is easy to fall into whenever one uses any type of symbolic language. Instead, these lines make you think, but are still poetic at face value, adding to their subtlety.

4. "There There" - Radiohead
Radiohead may be the best band around when it comes to making regular everyday phrases sound absolutely hauntingly deep. This song is sort of the trifecta of songs with "Do" and "Muzzle" if you want to think of it that way, as it has the simple phrasing and words of "Do" but the deep thoughts of "Muzzle" combined with some surrealist imagery to make something beautiful and completely unique. In "There There" there are these lines that I really like:

"there's always a siren
singing you to shipwreck.
(don't reach out, don't reach out)
steer away from these rocks
we'd be a walking disaster.
(don't reach out, don't reach out)

just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there.
(there's someone on your shoulder)
just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there.
(there's someone on your shoulder)"

Slightly surreal, but at the same time slight social comment and extremely thought provoking, these straight forward phrases almost make you look for more depth, when really the meaning is right there in the words. This is the kind of lyric writing that Radiohead excels at; deep lyrics that are actually relatively simple leaving the music, phrasing to conjure up the ideas of why these lines are actually subtle social comment and what the band is trying to say. In the end though, you find yourself circling back around to the literal meaning of the words and the combination of phrases and may just find the deeper meaning you were looking for.

5. "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" - Robert Johnson
I consider Robert Johnson one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and not just because he inspired virtually every blues man to follow in one form or another. His songs are deceptively simple, starkly honest and tell stories that are about as authentic as they come. Along with this the way he uses words though is just great . It's like he understands completely what each word says and what it implies as well as says. Take these lines from "If I Had Possession over Judgment Day":

"And I went to the mountain
lookin' far as my eyes could see
And I went to the mountain
lookin' far as my eye could see
Some other man got my woman and the
lonesome blues got me

And I rolled and I tumbled and I
cried the whole night long
And I rolled and I tumbled and I
cried the whole night long
Boy, I woke up this mornin'
my biscuit roller gone
Had to fold my arms and I
slowly walked away
spoken: I didn't like the way she done
Had to fold my arms and I
slowly walked away
I said in my mind, "Yo,"
trouble gon' come some day"

Each word in this story seems perfectly fit for the story he's telling and sounds pretty simple until you really dig into them, then they sound crafted to perfection by someone who really understands what these words are saying. That is important because words are power, and not only in lyric writing. Great lyricists understand that each word means something far more than just its meaning and its syllables. What makes Robert Johnson extra special to me from a lyrical standpoint though, is that his lyrics not only sound crafted, but also extremely spontaneous, adding to their authenticity just that much more.


End of Part 1

This is only Part 1 in this study of lyrics, Part two will be published tomorrow and will feature 5 more songs who's lyrics have struck me for one reason or another, as well as why. Read part 2 here: A Look at Song and Lyric Writing part 2: 10 Personal Lyrical Favorites 6-10

As for these first 5 songs, take a listen to each if you can, or just glance through the lyrics I've quoted and see if you see what I'm getting at and why these particular phrases, words and images have stayed with me and made each of these songs just that much greater to me.

(Lyrics all courtesy of their respective album liner notes.)

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