Lyrics. They’re the first thing your ears pick up on as a child, and all dreams of being a popstar/rockstar start with a hairbrush in hand, a mirror and an out of time, out of tune squeaky voice. It can take a while for your brain to catch up with your ears and start thinking about why you resonate with particular lyrics, but it’s a worthy pursuit.
You might find a kindred spirit where you thought you were alone (“oh my God, I feel that way too!”), find motivation to live better from inspiring Lil B lyrics (TYBG) or be completely astounded with the way someone uses lyrics. It’s this last revelation that really deserves adulation – and there exists a number of modern wordsmiths who can enrapture solely with their use of the English language who are truly one of a kind.
Paul Banks (Interpol)
Interpol frontman Paul Banks became the lyrical poster boy for the post-punk revival era due to his perplexing, absurdist lyrics like this gem from ‘A Time To Be So Small’: “when the cadaverous mob saves their doors for the dead men, you cannot leave.” Incidentally the song was, according to Banks, “possibly the first song ever to be written from the point of view of a crustacean.”
His puzzling lyrics may come from his English and Comparative Literature degree, but his romantically morose lyrics come straight from the heart. Take this line from ‘Leif Erikson’: “She feels that my sentimental side should be held with kids’ gloves/but she doesn’t know that I left my urge in the icebox”. It could be about a relationship in which ‘she’ believes Banks is too emotionally invested and that he needs to relax and enjoy the physical side of the relationship, but he has surpassed the point of acting out of lust… Or it could be about crustaceans. In the wonderfully absurd world of Paul Banks, the beauty lies in his poeticism being open for interpretation.
Jesse Lacey (Brand New)
As a man who proudly wears his love for The Smiths on his sleeve, Jesse Lacey’s lyrics are suitably depressing, but the Brand New frontman goes way beyond Morrissey in terms of heartbreaking lyrics. On the third Brand New album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, Lacey penned a track about the horrific, real-life incident of a 7 year old girl who was killed by a drunk driver. He speaks in three perspectives –the girl’s mother, the drunk driver and the girl herself – and all the verses are as harrowing as each other.
The whole album frequently wrestles with the topic of religion, but in Jesse’s portrayal of the drunk driver, he says this: “in the choir I saw a sad messiah/he was bored and tired of my laments/said I died for you one time but never again”, indicating that Jesus, the ever-forgiving son of God, would not die for his sins again, before moving into the line “one’ll love you so much, but do me a favour baby don’t reply/because I can dish it out, but I can’t take it”, then replacing the “one” each time, counting up to “seven” – the age of the girl when she died. Lyrics can affect people in different ways, but here Jesse proves that lyricism like his can be haunting, tragic and rare in the sense that it is universally upsetting.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)
Justin Vernon went from beardy dude in the woods with a guitar to superstar Kanye collaborator, but he has maintained his oddly assembled lexicon throughout as the flagship for an impressive array of musical talent. There are music fans that choose not to tackle any sort of tangled, knotty lyricism and that’s no stain on them, but there’s an extra unearthed pleasure for the word-nerds who listen to Bon Iver.
Closer ‘Beth/Rest’ on the eponymous album sounds like a Phil Collins B-side (it doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is), and opens with the line “errant heat to the star/and the rain let in/the hawser rolls, the vessel’s whole and Christ, it’s thin.” You can genius.com it all you want, but the fact of the matter is, it’s nonsense. It’s not nonsense in the Spike Milligan kind of way, but in the kind of way that reflects the natural world we live in. It’s here, everything seems accidentally crafted, but it’s still beautifully incomprehensible.
Justin Vernon said “’Beth/Rest’ is the death, but it’s a good death. It’s good winter. But it’s a rest; it’s not this final thing,” and no matter how hard it is to wrap your head around individual lines, this explanation somehow makes sense in a grand, overarching way.
Kool A.D. was renowned for being a ‘smartass’ back in the heady days of Das Racist. He, Dapwell and Heems would routinely fuck with everyone, everywhere, all the time, but in amongst the pissing about were some genuine world truths delivered in a words-tumbling-from-the-brain-out-the-mouth fashion.
He’s always maintained that he’s just a dumb rapper, but with hefty lines like “understand that all language is metaphor/And if you headed for a wall, you better set a course to a door/And if there’s no door, you better get a door/And if not, just look and see what you saw/And with that saw, cut yourself in half/And two halves make a whole, so climb through that,” he pulls off a very difficult display of rap gymnastics that uses a pretty monosyllabic vocabulary to show just how lyrically inventive he is.
He’s a rap philosopher with knowledge darts such as this: “when your ears listen to fears and your eyes brim up with tears/You’re better never having shed one, ‘cause you still couldn’t drink that water if you shed a ton.” It’s simple, yet inspiring. Kool A.D. is the rap game Dalai Lama.
Megan James (Purity Ring)
Purity Ring’s appeal lies in Megan James’ ability to permeate her sweet lullaby voice in amongst the antithetic, pitch-shifted and often demonic-sounding vocal samples that Corin Roddick surrounds his spectral-pop instrumentals with. Sometimes James’ voice can get lost in the bass-heavy beats but to the keen-eared, there’s a world where feelings that have no voice are projected by her highly unique lyricism.
James often uses an anatomical theme (spine, belly, ribs, eyes, mouths, skin etc.) to present feelings and much like dissecting a frog in science class, it’s morbidly fascinating. As opposed to a cliché phrase expressing how close one person feels to another, James opts to sing on ‘Fineshrine’: “cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you.” It’s not the most adorable image, but James’ words capture how ugly, unseemly, and yet passionate, enduring love can be.
Even though Purity Ring only have two LPs to their name, James has etched their name on the inside of skulls, unforgettable to those who experience her lyrical depiction of feelings by way of a whole semantic field of unrelated words.
True lyricists are inimitable purveyors of modern language. They can create worlds with words, make you feel emotions that aren’t even your own and downright boggle the mind, all set to a track cohabited by music that resonates with the lyrics they create. These people prove that lyricism will always have room to be illustrative, inventive and even insane – as time goes on and language changes to an unrecognisable point, you can feel safe in the knowledge that someone will always be championing good words.