Why are your Favourite Lyrics So. Damn. Good?

I was listening to one of the final songs in the quite unique and wonderful game, Death Stranding, on my phone and realised as I often do a huge discrepancy between the quality of the music vs the quality of the lyrics.

This is alarmingly common. You can box songs into obvious categories and decide which of your favourite songs fit where:

  • A shitty lame song with shitty lame lyrics

(e.g. Anything from Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran)

Ooh whoa, ooh whoa, ooh whoa You know you love me, I know you care Just shout whenever and I'll be there You are my love, you are my heart And we will never, ever, ever be apart

  • A shitty lame song with beautiful thought-provoking lyrics

(I can't think of any in this category. Perhaps Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, or something by Eminem/Kanye)

How many roads must a man walk down Before you call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail Before she sleeps in the sand? How many times must the cannonballs fly Before they're forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind The answer is blowin' in the wind

  • An amazing, beautiful song with shitty, lame lyrics

  • An amazing, beautiful song with amazing, beautiful lyrics

I want to discuss the two latter points in more detail.

It seems to me that the greatest musicians ever to exist can be as inept at lyrics as they are good at music. A startling example of this is Jacob Collier, a young musician of 25 whose abilities and understanding of music and harmony surpass pretty much anyone throughout history, to the point that he has a cult following among even the most prestigious musicians. Considered often as the greatest musician in history, he seems incapable of writing anything other than lame, perfunctory placeholder lyrics:

Touch me Like I've never loved before In a place that I adore In my hideaway I know Whichever way the wind may blow There will be a place for me to go In my hideaway

Now, these are... ok. But you'll forget them by the end of this sentence. They're hollow and generic enough that it might relate to various situations in listeners' lives, like a horoscope. Let's quickly analyse this song and performance by comparison (and I strongly recommend you watch and listen, it's truly wonderful):


You start off instantly seeing he is a very skilled composer, guitarist, pianist, and singer - simultaneously. (he can play a few dozen instruments to a professional level).

On a skill level, the trained musician may notice some fascinating features: His vocal pitch is perfect to the level of a machine, what you might think is until now impossible for a human to accomplish live.

at 2:15, he does a melodic run descending in microtones - notes with smaller intervals than the keys of a piano or frets of guitars. Again, a skill unknown to be possible.

As the song progresses and the groove builds, you may notice all kinds of interesting polyrhythms and time signatures and clustered comping

After all this, the song is still mature in that it's digestible to the common listener and clearly packs an emotional punch, rather than just virtuosically jerks itself off as so many talents inevitably end up doing.

Except the lyrics.

I've found this occurrence in many formally trained musicians' work, from The BB theme in Death Stranding, which paints a picture and a mood that can seemingly only uniquely be connected with the unique and epic open world that you experience in this particular game. The lyrics?

I'll stay with you By your side Close your tired eyes I'll wait and soon I'll see your smile In our dream


What am I getting at?

Ok, my point is, it seems to me that lyrics are not a musical ability at all. Lyrics don't really fit as musical ability, nor a poetical one. It resides in some mysterious purgatorial location between the two.

In contrast to the above, some musicians can create complex music with philosophically profound or deeply emotional visuals, and others can bring you that same provocative awe in the simplest, most basic songs and straight-forward lyrical lines.

Take Genesis' 'Ripples':

Marching to the promised land Where the honey flows And takes you by the hand Pulls you down on your knees While you're down a pool appears The face in the water looks up And she shakes her head as if to say That it's the last time you'll look like today

These lyrics don't just tell you how growing old is sad. It tells you a story skirting around any direct explanation. The march to death drags you to your knees, where you find yourself in tears. The pool of tears show your own reflection looking back at you in despair: Things will only get worse from here on out. You're getting old, and you're going to die.

Tragic, tear-inducing stuff.

In contrast, take Bill Callahan's incredibly simple 'One Fine Morning', consisting of two open chords repeating for 8 minutes and little else:

The curtain rose and burned in the morning sun

The mountains bowed down Like a ballet

Supremely simple lines in which you could practically paint a majestic masterpiece in its name.

So what's the difference?

It's my belief that when writing lyrics, artists should emphasize the things they don't write.

As Genesis skirts round, at all costs, saying 'you are getting old' or 'time flies' and instead paints a visual narrative you can easily slip yourself into, Callahan simplifies his words to such an extent that you're forced to fill in the gaps with your own personal artistic interpretation.

In all the examples I can muster of lyrical brilliance, those that genuinely move me, that compel me to learn about the artist, and remember their art, none of them actually make it clear what the hell they're singing about.

They give you a direction, and if successful, you get wisped away to a place, a time, or something more abstract such as a philosophy or sociological considerations. This is also where one can truly relate because although these lyrics are designed for self-interpretation, they are also carefully crafted to guide you to the often intangible purpose the creator was trying to express.

Bon Iver often has lyrics that leave me clueless, but at the same time, deeply traumatized emotionally. You just know his heart is flooding into his music in ways rarely seen from anyone else:

There's a black crow sitting across from me His wiry legs are crossed And he's dangling my keys, he even fakes a toss Whatever could it be that has brought me to This loss?

You don't have to be musical in order to create beautiful music. I wonder if you even need to be artistic in order to create great art. It's my suspicion that you need to have gone through some shit before your eyes can open to more complex, uncomfortable ways of thinking that so often lead to these qualities we strive to find in our music.

People who have had comfortable, happy and stable lives have, by definition, had little experience and tend to have no time for people doing worse off than them; why would they? Why empathize when you can cool off in your backyard pool with your beautiful spouse and kids, or sit around the table with a giant turkey, guests laughing at all your jokes?

This is not where great art comes from.

So, why are your favourite lyrics so damn good?

Great lyrics seem to come from musicians who have been hurt, damaged in some way. Great lyrics tend not to come from formally trained musicians, growing up in orchestras and film scores. Lyrics are typically a second thought for these.

Smart composers are self-aware in this regard, such as Kevin Penkin, who created a kind of fake, nonsensical language to support his music in his now award-winning soundtrack for 'Welcome to Abyss'

Great lyrics come from showing, not telling. I'd even go as far to say, if your song is telling me what's going on, you're doing it wrong.

Of course, not all lyrics have to be abstract. Telling a simple story can be just as affecting, but by implying certain conditions and emotions can turn a nice story into something truly heartfelt - such as Kath Bloom's 'The Breeze / My Baby Cries':

Yesterday I talked with my father He said that we could never win It's so hard to tell where I end and my father begins

Well my baby cries when he's tired My puppy howls with the moon

Not all meaningful lyrics have to be so miserable, either. Lyrics from Mr Bungle's 'Stubb (a dub)' are delightfully imaginative while telling a story about his pet dog in one of the most bizarre songs you'll ever hear:

Do you understand me Do you think about me when you're peeing? Do you really think you're gonna grow Into a human being?

Well, these are what I find valuable in the lyrics. I guess everyone is different. I mean, according to Buzzfeed, Destiny's Child's 'Bills Bills Bills' is 'deceptively deep'.

So what do I know?

Song references for those interested:

Kath Bloom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bapF2B-mGfE Bon Iver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhDnyPsQsB0 Bill Callahan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NphJbinncQ Genesis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJa9gEUa0To Mr. Bungle: https://youtu.be/-RBSrUtX0bA

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