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A Look at Song and Lyric Writing part 2: 10 Personal Lyrical Favorites 6-10
This is part two in a study of song lyrics, featuring the last 5 songs I chose for examples of lyrics that have stuck in my mind and spoken to me.
You can read part one here: A Look at Song and Lyric Writing Part 1: 10 Personal Lyrical Favorites 1-5
6. "Outlaw Blues" - Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is another one of those writers for which every song they've written speaks to me in some way or another. His lyrics are always honest and have an almost stream of consciousness feel to them at times that seems like he is speaking them off the cuff. Take these lines from "Outlaw Blues":
"Well, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range.
Oh, I wish I was on some
Australian mountain range.
I got no reason to be there, but I
Imagine it would be some kind of change.
I got my dark sunglasses,
I got for good luck my black tooth.
I got my dark sunglasses,
I'm carryin' for good luck my black tooth.
Don't ask me nothin' about nothin',
I just might tell you the truth."
Those are some pretty straight forward lyrics with a little bit of fun mixed in, but they say more about who's singing them than most songs ever do. Some people write from the heart, other people write truly from the soul not trying to do anything but be who they are, with all their past, present and future right there. I see Bob Dylan as one of the latter; someone who just puts it out there whether it be through story, imagery or direct lines like this. Sometimes not thinking about it and just being direct is key to really getting your message across.
7. "Raid on Entebbe" - The Mountain Goats
As I've written about before, since first hearing the Mountain Goats I was a fan. Lyrically they are quite unique with great word usage to fit with specific syllables, but also some unique references. Take these lines from "Raid on Entebbe":
"On the shores of a lake named after a late queen of england
i heard new rumors of war.
the sun was a red ball up in the summer sky.
i saw my sister standing in the doorway.
she had that look on her face that reminded me of you.
the reports were coming hourly and the sky was blue.
they were shifting the power again.
they always do this when i come home."
I really like how the words roll in these lyrics while still painting a pretty vivid picture. I especially like the line "she had that look on her face that reminded me of you" because it has such honest implications, but does not directly state who is being referred to. This gives the story that is being played out a little more depth, like fleshing out it's characters with real feelings and thoughts. This really makes these lyrics sound authentic, spontaneous and ease to relate to in my mind and that is an important part of successfully reaching an audience.
8. "The Birdman" - Our Lady Peace
I've been an Our Lady Peace fan for since their first album and although I like something about everyone of their releases, their first album has always remained my favorite. This track, from that album features some lyrical lines that sound cryptic and subtle but are actually pretty straight forward at the same time.
"Hopelessly a man starts to feed your day
once he was there you never looked back
how did you think that his words might just fade away
he seemed harmless enough so you let him in and now you'll pay
i can't see him but he's stalking my thoughts
how does it feel when you can't concentrate?
i just stare
all of your daydreams are a seesaw for him to play on
how does it feel when he calls your name
you can plug your ears but it's not the same
how does it feel when he pulls you back
nobody's wrong nobody's right the birdman wouldn't lie
nobody's wrong nobody's right but i just can't trust him tonight
how do you forget a stranger that plagues your days
we arm ourselves when there's nothing to fear right?
how does it feel when it comes to pass there's something there
but it's not quite right
how does it feel, does it make you mad?"
These lines are pretty poetic to start, with some pretty quasi surreal images, but as they progress they call up some pretty deep issues and I think that is part of why this song has stuck with me. Lyrics that can both be completely cryptic and "out there" but also be pretty deep and insightful are good as they're subtle enough to not be over the top, but also complex enough in their imagery to warrant multiple in depth listens.
9. "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" - Frank Zappa
I came to Frank Zappa far to late in my musical awareness I believe, but have since become pretty interested in his musical approach and especially his progressive guitar playing. I've also found his lyrics to be some of the best social comment I've heard in a long time... and pretty funny as well. This song is the first Frank Zappa song I ever heard and it remains one of my favorites for it's amusing topic and lyrical lines:
"You know your mama and your daddy
Sayin i'm no good for you
They call me dirty from the alley
Til i don't know what to do
I get so tired of sneakin around
Just to get to your back door
I crawled past the garbage
And your mama jumps out screamin'
Dont come back no more!
I cant take it
My guitar wants to kill your mama
My guitar wants to kill your mama
My guitar wants to burn your dad
I get real mean when it makes me mad"
This amusing little story has some starkly honest moments in it and when you read into what it actually says, really speaks about societal values, but is deceptively simple and catchy. Not everyone can appreciate social comment and some humor in their music, especially when it's coming from the just slightly cynical view of Frank Zappa, but I think these lines are a great example of using humor and catchy phrases to say more, without actually saying... well more. Lots of bands have attempted this kind of commentary, but few are as intelligent, simple, funny and successful.
10. "Heart in a Cage" - The Strokes
Although the album this song if off of was readily dismissed by many music critics (not that it really matters) this song stuck out to me from the first moment I heard it not only for it's great catchy yet slightly hypnotic feel, but also for it's lyrical lines.
"All our friends, they're laughing at us
All of those you loved you mistrust
Help me I'm just not quite myself
Look around there's no one else left
I went to the concert and I fought through the crowd
Guess I got too excited when I thought you were around
Oh he gets left, left, left, left, left, left, left
I'm sorry you were thinking; I would steal your fire.
The heart beats in its cage"
These lines, specifically the line about fighting through the crowd and getting too excited really hit me as being just great images. They do conjure up some specific ideas and hint at a story but don't completely give it away or fill in the details. That kind of subtlety can really make a song stand out because it lets the listener interpret the story anyway they want. If a song is too direct in it's story, it can alienate your audience because they simply cannot relate to it. This probably isn't the best example for this, but for some reason, these lines really stuck with me and seemed to capture this idea well.
Bonus: The Velvet Underground
If you're at all familiar with the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll at this point, I'm sure you've realized that I'm a really big fan of the Velvet Underground. To avoid writing yet another piece about this band, Lou Reed's songwriting ability and the Velvet's musical style, I decided not to include a specific song from them in this list of ten. Still, in any study of lyrics I think this band is an absolute "must listen to". So, instead of discussing a specific song, you can read some of the other pieces on the Velvet Underground I've written for the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll, (or wait because I'm sure there will be more written in the future) and listen to their catalog of work to discern why I consider this band one of the best for lyrics, amongst other things.
(P.S. The same is true about Lennon & McCartney as a "must listen to", but in the life of this site I'm sure I'll write thousands of pieces about them as well and there has already been so much written by so many other people that I chose not to include them either)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this two part article, lyrics are not overly important to me in making a song good or not, but they are part of the puzzle just like everything else that sometimes really stands out.
When thinking about what I think makes great song lyrics I did notice a few trends and you probably noticed them as well reading through why I picked these ten. I think the best way to sum up those trends is to say that the writer has to recognize that they are writing "song lyrics". Song lyrics have special implications. They're at heart a form of entertainment but also serve as a launching pad for thousands of music enthusiasts to start thinking about certain issues, philosophical ideas or society. This requires an intricate balance because if you're too intellectual, you'll alienate your audience as your lyrics become to dense to comb through, while if you're to simplistic, people won't be intrigued enough to keep listening.
The best songwriters and lyricists in my mind understand this balance and can walk this line while still being honest, spontaneous, poetic, surreal and everything else that lyrics can be.
This list of ten is in no way a list of the best lyricists or even the better ones. These are just ten songs that I like lyrically for the reasons I've outlined. Take a listen and see if you agree with me or not. Or maybe take a second look at some of your favorite songs and see if you can find something new in their lyrics that you hadn't thought about before.
(Lyrics all courtesy of their respective album liner notes.)