10 Jul Revelatory Songwriting

When it comes to song lyrics, I’m increasingly appreciative of writing that helps reveal meaning to the listener rather than veiling it. My favorite songwriters have a way of using language to make their points clearer where others might use it either as a requisite afterthought or, more purposefully, for the way it sounds or feels. The latter is not always ineffectual, by any means – Andrew Bird and Justin Vernon come to mind as writers who marry music and lyric to great rhythmic, emotional, and experimental ends, if not literal ones. But when Jason Isbell sings about a dying woman “cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore” (Elephant), I not only see her in the sad, nostalgic light he casts, I feel the impermanence of things. This is revelatory songwriting.

I remember a line from Ian McEwan’s Atonement that prompted the realization for me. He describes the protagonist family’s estate, an “open parkland, which today had a dry and savage look, roasting like a savanna, where … the long grass was already stalked by the leonine yellow of high summer.” For a fiction author like McEwan, it’s of obvious importance that the reader imagines settings and characters as much like he intends as possible, and it’s his responsibility to take her there. A late summer heat, hyperbolically African; the grass starting to turn the same color as a lion, the color creeping up on it as toward some prey; “stalked” suggesting both animal and floral connotations. McEwan’s lawn could have simply been “yellowing in the late summer heat,” but his elegant one-two punch delivers the image far more powerfully.

I think more songwriters could benefit from this kind of approach. It’s to their advantage that the medium combines the inherently emotional aspect of music with language, and the more effectively the two are matched, the greater the impact. This is an obvious observation, but the “how” of lyrical/melodic complement remains a persistent vexation for songwriters. It can be an easy-out to rely on the music alone to communicate for you, but how much more meaningful will it be when the right attention is given to language? Poets/lyricists have much to learn from novelists in this regard.

This is why I love lines like Isbell’s and McEwan’s – they communicate clearly, understandably, directly. They make potent use of simile. Show me ‘A’ by itself, and I’ll see it from my perspective. Show me ‘A’ in light of ‘B’, and you can deepen or transform my perspective on it, introduce a new perspective entirely. It’s fascinating psychology that the comparison between even dissimilar subjects can clarify our understanding. I want to dig deeper into this in my own songwriting, striving more and more to show the listener something new.

  • Ryk Comerford
    Posted at 20:15h, 15 July Reply

    I do prefer lyrics with an understandable point of view, to lyrics that are vague or ambiguous or pop lyrics that if you read them don’t make a lot of sense, but somehow sound good in the song.
    Rush lyricist Neal Peart is my favorite rock lyricist. On the opposite side is Lisa Gerrard. I like her singing, and I thought she was singing in a foreign language, until I discovered the sounds she sings are completely made up.

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