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“Lyrics as Poetry”

We’re sort of in a paradoxical time now in music, because on one hand, while there are more people in the world than ever, it makes evermore sense for the main message of music to feature and revolve around spoken diction. At the same time, our increasing reliance on technology obviates the appropriateness of electronic music, electronica to be short, and such music for whatever reason is often entirely instrumental, contrasting sharply with “message”-based genres rendered anachronistic, like folk. And if you throw words over electronica, you almost deluge the proceedings into a flooded necessity of hip-hop, thus nullifying what we hope is our genre multiplicity.

Take a universally acclaimed album from last year like Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. It was a fresh, bouncy, and thoroughly professional take on jazz, and it met our ears not as some museum relic but as a dangerous and exciting art nugget for the 20-teens. Still, the listener couldn’t help but wield a CERTAIN pride in the activity, knowing that simply, “Hey, I’m listening to jazz! I’m so… cultured!”
Also, I think, the album did naturally spur a lot of looking around, CRAVING as it were a verbal message — lyrics. Sure, no lyrics is better than bad lyrics, but there’s still the factor of the actual world outside you, which we always feel the natural inclination to comment on. Though, all the ambience could simply be atoning for all the times we were forced to listen to Taylor Swift.
One of my favorite songs of this new decade is Julia Holter’s “Fur Felix,” and the lyrics are complete nonsense, obviously: she’s going “Echo echo echo echo echo echo echo outside / Outside / Outside.” This should dictate that a song’s quality doesn’t necessarily HINGE on lyrical poignance (plus, this could be interpreted as some juvenile Gertrude Stein thing, maybe), but still, I dislike the idea of totally discarding the possibility of edification through the words in pop music themselves.
Hopefully this list seconds that emotion:

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The Dismemberment Plan – “Back and Forth”

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Any pitchfork/indie snob should know this album, I WOULD HOPE, and this LP finale finds Travis Morrison really hitting his stride vocally. What stands out about just the lyrics themselves, aside from their sheer mass, is that in the wake of this, the choral resolution is something as simple and hopeless as “We’re going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back”. Taken musically, the song is celebratory as the closeur of a classic album should often be, and appropriately enough, though the words stand as poetry on their own, they also contain a sort of Dionysian abandon, like a tribute to the night, which can’t help but summon thoughts of rock and roll, for the onlooker in the era of such.

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Fishbone – “A Movement in the Light”

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Just as Bad Brains is the black punk band that put an end to black punk, Fishbone did for ska. And for all we know, “A Movement in the Light” might have been BETTER just as a poem — hell, it might have seen some coverage on NPR. Angelou Moore did read a poem out loud at the end of the one Fishbone show I saw, and unlike this “song” it wasn’t in rhyme, so it even cottoned on to the current fashion of the medium, in this way: I think it was called “Lifestyles of the Famous but Not Rich” or something like that. This attribute, and the brilliance of “Movement”’s lyrics, certainly beg the question of whether the art is even behooved by music, especially in the case of this song which is more of a deliberate, down-temp, non-ska number, albeit one that uses the wah-wah pedal and trumpet. It also certainly dispels the myth that rock lyrics are meaningless.

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GZA – “4th Chamber” feat. Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and RZA

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In “4th Chamber,” as is the case with many Wu songs, their theory of mankind’s categorization emerges. Per this theory, which is alluded to vaguely in countless numbers but is explicated thoroughly in their book The Wu Manual, 85% of people are easily led automatons, 10% are “devils,” aware of the truth but devoted to deceiving and defeating, and 5% are “gods,” truly able to project a holy discourse and provide light and comfort for others in everyday life. This is what one of them means, I think it’s Raekwon, when he says in that one song “Most of my team / 5%.” But the GZA pairing in this song is dizzying: “Disciplinary action was a fraction of strength / That made me truncate the length one tenth”. The surrounding lines are rife with imagery and metaphor: “Woofers thump / Tweeters hiss like air pumps / RZA shaved the track / Ni**az caught razor bumps”, the metaphor being for the “razor sharp” producer and beat-maker at the helm of things here. But notice the rhyme scheme in the featured pairing: this is the mark of a good emcee, presenting enlightening things in a fresh way, using alternative terminology, for an exciting way to get back to domination.

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PJ Harvey – “That Was My Veil”

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I’ve been going PJ Harvey crazy lately, as any follower of this blog will observe, and I even mentioned her in my Alanis Morissette review, for reasons of basic stylistic and modal similarities. Ironically, I can compare this Harvey installment back to Morissette, or Fiona Apple whom I also mention in the Morissette piece, because it’s a simple, heartbroken song about a relationship failure. What makes it brilliant here, though, from an artistic standpoint, is that the discourse is something so illogical, or logically doomed — that the thing she craves, that which she’d hoped would deliver her to transcendence, was nothing but a “veil,” yet she longs for it anyway (“Give me back my veil”).

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Menomena – “Five Little Rooms”

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The entire album Mines, which is the only Menomena project I happen to listen to, is thematically predicated on the idea of total disaster. Brilliant opener “Queen Black Acid” delivers the following lugubrious chorus: “I walked right in through a rabbit door / And walked right into a rabbit hole / I made myself an open book / I made myself a sitting duck”. Then the most popular song on the album, per iTunes, has lyrics that are largely unintelligible; unfortunately the title is “Killemall.” Wow, so much for free love and hippiedom on the west coast! Elsewhere, similar plaints are leveled against the world: “Tithe” laments “Someone retired on a percentage / Of the tithe that paved these roads / They lead to nowhere but they’re still gridlocked”, and here we have sort of a foreshadowing of the songwriting deconstruction that takes place on “Five Little Rooms.” That is, the music essentially loses all kinetic energy, though in this way fails to cohere into “folk,” because the topicality at hand is too dark and misanthropic. Sort of like the brats from hell, the terrible twos who drank radioactive waste and grew to take over the indie rock world, Menomena here paint a sort of absurdist portrait of a house that houses a man’s husbands, their prostitutes and their children, leading into the sadistic, maniacal, choral mantra of “All this could be yours someday!”

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My Chemical Romance – “Teenagers”

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From Brothers Grimm fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, to any zoological study of the behavior of bees, widely popular tales of large-scale and devastating malevolence have never been in short supply. Taken just as poetry, “Teenagers” would certainly have a greater sense of urgency than your typical verse — in fact, the reader would get the impression that the poet were on the verge of some breakdown, even suicide. But as it is, in rock and roll, it’s a coke-snortin’ good ol’ time, just another quest for “blood, blood, blood” on the album, which appropriately enough is called The Black Parade.

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Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – “Take You There”

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This was one of my champs on my “Top 214 Albums of All Time” list, and the reasons I liked it then are the same as now — that the lyrics just sound so effortless but powerful, like “Try to gas me like Hitler once we get divided”; “Amazing grace when I face the great paper chase / For real it’s long overdue so I don’t wanna talk to you”.

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The Roots – “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”

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This would be one of those I’d-take-this-to-a-desert-island type songs, emerging on the same unforgettable album, Phrenology, as “Water,” what Pitchfork proclaimed as the leader in “prog-hop.” Apart from the recent jazz revival we’ve had this decade with The Budos Band, Rational Discourse and Kamasi Washington, “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)” still exudes the dark and street tough elements of underground hip-hop, but with dissonant, blue-note melody stroking the entire thing, and of course “lyrics” given in prose poetry form from the great ex-Greenwhich Village denizen Amiri Baraka.

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Sun Kil Moon – “Third and Seneca”

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Also known as Grandfather John Misty, Mark Kozelek, formerly of the lo-fi ’90’s band the Red House Painters, has a hypnotic, melodic drone that I find perfect for the snowy days here in the Midwest, even though from Ohio he’s now located on the west coast. “Third and Seneca” is a serene, deliberate trek through experiences of a tour — the different scenes you get and how they’re so disparate, though the song is delivered in a haunting melancholy, placing melody above all else.

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Wilco – “Pot Kettle Black”

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With a lot of these songs, like with the My Chemical Romance ditty, the requisite is just that there’s something SUPERLATIVE going on — like that one’s basically just the grimmest portrait of the future of humanity, and then with this one, it’s the ultimate white-boy, stoner, hipster morality: “It’s become so obvious / You are so oblivious to yourself / Tied in a know / But I’m not gonna get caught / Callin’ the pot kettle black / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later.” Tomfoolery! But memorable tomfoolery, rivaling “Heavy Metal Drummer” for best song on side B!

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Addenda: The Cardigans – “Love Fool”

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I never really GOT this song, to be honest. I guess it sort of too well represented the sterile zeitgeist of the ’90’s of sitting in cafes and exercising your freedom to be romantically promiscuous, or just inept. But I’ve gotta admit, “Reason will not lead to confusion / All I’ve learned I’ve lost in illusion” is a pretty damn good pairing, especially coming as it does toward the end of the second verse, a pivotal point within a song, like with the “sharing a drink” line in “Piano Man.” So back then it was more care taken toward a less moral end, whereas now, all you hear is like, I’m right, I’m fighting the good fight, so damned if I’m gonna back down, or whatever. And it’s not to really say one is right and the other’s wrong (if anything it’s better nowadays), but I can’t help but sort of salivate over this sophisticated quest for subservience exhibited by The Cardigans here, as a sort of semantic levity from the same old my-brand-is-better-than-your-brand discourse we seem to get in pop music these days. But then, I should probably be careful what I ask for.

 

 

 

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