Chapter and verse: what makes perfect lyrics? | Pop and rock
In the weekly magazine of the Resolute Guide! chronicle, we’re taking a look at a crucial pop culture question you’ve been dying to know the answer to – and we’re fixing it
When it comes to defining what makes really good lyrics, there are many things involved, from the emotional context and how a line stumbles across the tongue, to how it might make you whisper “So true.” In your breath as you try not to cry into your 8am Americano on a train platform.
Good words can be loosely classified into a handful of categories. There is the emotionally devastating: “You just wasted my precious time” (Bob Dylan, Don’t think twice, everything is fine). The witty understudy: “Could you be dead?” You have always been two steps ahead ”(Everything except the girl Faded away). The Cultural and Political Hand Grenade: “Elvis was a hero for the most part, but he never meant shit to me / You see, downright racist” (Public Enemy, Fight the power). Those which are absolute nonsense but which sound like the answer to all the problems in the world when you sing them out loud: “I have a soul, but I am not a soldier” (All these things that I did by the killers). And the simple but joyful; “Save yourself, go, go-he-hey!” “(Enya, Orinoco stream).
Leonard Cohen was fabulously good at devastating emotions, but we won’t dwell here on his sublime work, because – due to his early career as a poet – he has an unfair advantage. Instead, we’ll watch his lifelong fan Nick Cave, whose pessimistic but ironic approach has given us dark joys such as, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God / But I know, honey, that you do. “(In your arms). Much like Patti Smith “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine” (Gloria), that kind of religion skewer – which Cohen also loved – adds a timelessness to a song, elevating it from your Spotify rework into something altogether grander.
Nick Cave recently used his Red Right Hand newsletter to claim that one of the biggest opening lines of all time was Fairytale of New York “It Was Christmas Eve / In the Drunk Tank”. “The lyrics… emanate from deep within the lived experience itself, existing in the very bones of the song,” wrote Cave of Shane MacGowan and the festive creation of Jem Finer. “He doesn’t condescend, but speaks his truth, clearly and without frills. “
Truth is vital for good words. When Joni Mitchell sings “I Could Drink A Case Of You … And I Would Still Be Up” (A case of you) and you know for his breakup with Graham Nash, it hits even harder. Even the “I am a Roman of the 45th generation” of the Streets (Turn the page) works so well because of Mike Skinner’s left field – but honest – way of identifying himself, while Jay-Z is adept “If you have girl trouble I feel bad for you son / I’m 99 problems but a bitch is not “is a brutal but brilliant humblebrag. Even Kris Kristofferson “And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert” (Sunday morning, descent) works so well because of its straightforward alcoholic runaway.
But a twisted approach to fantasy also has its place in great songwriting. When Courtney Love sings “I’m Miss World Someone Kills Me” (Hole’s Miss World) she gets to the gnarled root of the impossible expectations felt by modern women in six simple words. This is proof that whatever the subject treated, the best words are generally also the most economical.