The Metric System of Lyrics
The other day, I happened to pick up Metric's 2005 album "Live It Out" on the street here in NYC for two bucks, and ever since then, I've been listening to it more or less obsessively, as is my fashion with new music. It's cemented a few ideas that have been floating around in my head. One, Metric is probably in my top five favorite bands of this decade. Two, the main reason I like Metric so much is because I think they have some of the best lyrics of any band out right now. And three, that this stance on Metric is a good example of my basic stance on the role of lyrics in music.
Lyrics can be a tricky thing to deal with. Good music doesn't necessarily need lyrics at all, and so it's possible and legitimate to see lyrics as not particularly important or disposable, even in traditionally lyrical forms like rock. For example, as Chacarron demonstrates, you can rap almost anything over a reggaeton beat and have a hit on your hands, although that's not necessarily a testament to the quality of most reggaeton. A better example is Led Zeppelin, whose songs consistently have some of the worst lyrics ever written ("we gonna go walkin' through the park every day"), but still, well, is fucking Zeppelin. But lyrics are also the best way we have to connect directly with a song. Lyrics are the easiest signpost we have for what a song is actually supposed to mean, even if that signpost has something to do with a one eyed midget, and it's lyrics, in the end, that everyone can sing along to and remember. So no, good music doesn't need good lyrics, but good lyrics can sure improve a song.
But then, what exactly are good lyrics? There is a certain school of thought that argues that the more verbose and literate the lyrics are, the better. I'm obviously setting this school up as a bit of a straw man, but these folks have a point. We want to hear beautiful words, beautiful descriptions in lyrics, since these kinds of things stick in our mind. It takes a smart person, who knows their way around the English language to construct those sort of images. And there are plenty of artists who use this "more is more" strategy to great effect, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, Leonard Cohen and the like who will put amazing words in a song that you'd never think would fit in a song, and spectacular images that brand themselves on your memory. It's really a hell of a thing when this kind of song is executed well.
But more often, in my opinion, it isn't. Verbose lyrics can become like long guitar solos in a song: wankery, an unnecessary demonstration of skill that disrupts the song as a whole. Nothing is more annoying in a rock song then when you can hear people thinking that they're just so clever. Verbose lyrics also certainly don't make a good song. I'm thinking primarily of Voxtrot here. I remember being told a few years ago, over and over again, how Voxtrot was made of English Lit students, college boys, how the lyrics were just so literate and so intelligent. Ok, Voxtrot can write some good lyrics, admittedly. But the songs are painfully slow and hookless, they're no fun to listen to, and so hearing these great lyrics feels just about as fun and stirring as eating a bowl of healthy oatmeal, which is sort of the spirit in which these songs are commended, I feel. "Eat up your intelligent rock," the critics preach, "it's GOOD for you." I'm sorry, but I don't like to wait around while rock shows how sensitive it is, while it quietly teaches me a lesson. I think it's a much more profound experience to be so energized by a rock concert that you're jumping up and down, even though, in non-rock contexts, you're a mild mannered university student. What's more, I don't think Voxtrot's lyrics are so great. The insertion of ten dollar words and references just makes the whole song feel labored over. Instead of being smart, Voxtrot needs to tell me they're smart. And that's freaking obnoxious.
A lot of artists fall victim to this sickness. Peter Moren, in his solo album, seems happy a lot of times to let the song wait while he says something clever. Destroyer is even more the poster child of the verbose lyrics problem than even Voxtrot. A lot of my friends, and I'm sure a lot of people at the station, love Destroyer, but I've never been able to stomach his long, rambling, overly clever lines, and painfully slow songs, and I tolerate and even enjoy the same sort of songs from Bejar in The New Pornographers - when combined with sick pop hooks. On the Hip-Hop side, I would point to Aesop Rock as having an equivalent problem. I love Aesop Rock's early stuff, and I think easily, he is one of the most technically skilled rapper ever to wield a mic. But the problem with his later work is that he knows that, and more often than not, he'll let it get in the way of just doing a fun song.
So what do I like? For me, it's not about the length of the words, or the kind of words, or the uniqueness of the vocabulary/imagery. It's about the right few words in the right place. James Baldwin hits the nail on the head here, when, in an interview with Studs Terkel, he explains that the saddest thing about a Bessie Smith song is the understatement, the sheer, stupid obviousness of the way she follows the line "my house fell down" with "And I can't live there no mo'." It's the smallest things, put at the right time. I'll give you another silly example. One of my favorite lyrics of all time, and easily, in my opinion, the funniest line of all time, is James Brown, in "Payback" singing, "I don't know Karate / But I know cuh-ra-zay". From a sheer poetic standpoint, it's skillful how he uses assonance. And yeah, the line is funny, but it's funny for a reason. It resonates with us because it reminds us how ridiculous and desperate we all look when we get insane about relationships. It rings true. I think anyone who's been in a relationship knows cuh-ra-zay. And what's best is that you can sing along to it, and memorize it, which is kind of harder to do with, say, "colonnaded ruins domino." It's a short line, not especially beautiful, not ornamented or sophisticated. But it's a good damn lyric.
Metric is the standard bearer today of that school of lyrics. They don't have complicated lines, but they have the right lines in the right place. "Combat Baby", for example, is one of my favorite songs of the decade for the way it deftly paints the portrait of a relationship that seems to be cemented by constant fighting. From the first verse, when Emily sings about being "all caffeine-free and faux-punk fatigues", you know these people, and you probably hate them too. On "Handshakes", Emily encapsulates in one tight little refrain how much capitalism can suck sometimes: "Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car". And the great little anti-war song "Monster Hospital", that captures the frustrated mood of us lefties during this shitty decade with the half-stolen chorus "I fought the war / I fought the war / I fought the war / but the war won!" Through clever syntax, pointed details, and restrained references, Metric gives us a zeitgeist we can all sing along to. That's lyrics, man.
Well shit, you can compare for yourself.