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Thread: Lyrics. How do you judge them

  1. #26
    John Boegehold
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    From a songwriter's perspective, the best advice I ever heard about writing lyrics was from a music publisher in Nashville: "Choose a subject that's been written about a million times then write it from an angle that's never been done." As a listener, that always impresses me.

  2. #27
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    I used to connect with a song’s lyrics if it put into words some belief, idea and emotion I held at the time. Sometimes I would align quite closely with some lyricist or another and then that band/singer provided a temporary musical backdrop to my life. Like looking back at an old Polaroid photograph of myself dressed proudly in the fashion of the time, I sometimes revisit songs and laugh at the weirdness and dysfunction I mistook for insight (although, admittedly, some of the words hold true to this day).

    I still love the voice as an instrument, but can now listen to a singer without paying regard to what is being sung.
    You ask, in uncertain voice, what you should do / As if there were a choice / But to carry on / Miming the song / And hope that it all works out right

  3. #28
    Member Zeuhlmate's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    I used to connect with a song’s lyrics if it put into words some belief, idea and emotion I held at the time. Sometimes I would align quite closely with some lyricist or another and then that band/singer provided a temporary musical backdrop to my life. Like looking back at an old Polaroid photograph of myself dressed proudly in the fashion of the time, I sometimes revisit songs and laugh at the weirdness and dysfunction I mistook for insight (although, admittedly, some of the words hold true to this day).

    I still love the voice as an instrument, but can now listen to a singer without paying regard to what is being sung.
    That's about my take on the matter too...
    There are voices I love no matter what they sing, and voices that annoys me.


    "There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another."
    Frank Zappa

  4. #29
    Member wiz_d_kidd's Avatar
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    If you don't have anything to say, why are you forcing yourself to say something? If you're just trying to populate your song with lyrics because of some unwarranted expectation of the audience, don't.

    Nothing sounds cheesier than a forced vocal performance singing contrived vocals just because the artist felt obliged to do so.

    All music has to have vocals, right? WRONG! Try expressing yourself musically. Put that anger, angst, love, fear, elation or whatever you're feeling into in well-executed guitar or violin or keyboard passage. Maybe then, once your "message" is more well-formulated, some meaningful words will spring forth to help you express it.

    As for me, I'm perfectly happy listening to an instrumental that expresses some feeling or allows my brain to concoct it's own story to your well-crafted melodies and rhythms.

  5. #30
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    Prog lyrics can be pretty awful. Maybe that's why I love Italian Prog - I don't speak the language!!!
    The Prog Corner

  6. #31
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    Very cool discussion. Up-front caveat: I have never written a lyric, and only a few lines of poetry in my life, so I can't offer any suggestions as to "how to".

    But: I grew up with the Beatles and Broadway, so lyrics are very important to me, and I have developed opinions over the years as to what I like and don't like. When I was playing a lot of jazz standard literature, my main method of memorization was to learn the melody (I play bass) and the best way to cement that in my mind was to learn the lyrics, even the verses to the standards that rarely get performed except by jazz singers (think the verse to "All The Things You Are" that starts "Time and again I longed for adventure..."). As a teen, I would pore over the liner notes of albums to learn the lyrics, and it really bugged me when they weren't included. But it wasn't until I started listening to more intelligently-crafted pop music that I realized how awesome a well-crafted lyric can be and how much it weds with and elevates the music. Whether it's telling a story, describing a scene, conveying an emotion, or just an example of clever wordcraft doesn't really matter to me; if it works, it just works. And as much as I am in awe of the mystery of a great lyric's creation, it's only been in the last few years that I came to the realization that there really are no rules; all one has to do is explore the wonderfully trippy lyrics of Mike Keneally, or the often bizarre verbiage and upside-down syllabification of Tim Smith to realize that with sufficient intent, almost anything can be artistically successful.
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  7. #32
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    Quote Originally Posted by wiz_d_kidd View Post
    If you don't have anything to say, why are you forcing yourself to say something? If you're just trying to populate your song with lyrics because of some unwarranted expectation of the audience, don't.

    Nothing sounds cheesier than a forced vocal performance singing contrived vocals just because the artist felt obliged to do so.

    All music has to have vocals, right? WRONG! Try expressing yourself musically. Put that anger, angst, love, fear, elation or whatever you're feeling into in well-executed guitar or violin or keyboard passage. Maybe then, once your "message" is more well-formulated, some meaningful words will spring forth to help you express it.

    As for me, I'm perfectly happy listening to an instrumental that expresses some feeling or allows my brain to concoct it's own story to your well-crafted melodies and rhythms.
    Very well put and exactly the type of response I could see myself making to a similar post.

    I have to say that for various reasons My allotted musical time has been altered which has a bit of an effect on my productivity but that's really just a time management issue which I intend modifying.

    The thread really isn't about me although I am benefitting from the various POV.
    It is really just bringing up the topic of lyrics in a forum more usually concerned discussing music heavily weighted towards being of an instrumental nature or where the lyrics may be outrageously clichéd. Yikes. no offence people.

  8. #33
    Quote Originally Posted by miamiscot View Post
    Prog lyrics can be pretty awful. Maybe that's why I love Italian Prog - I don't speak the language!!!
    Italian Prog is great is you love the word "sogno".
    No matter what anyone says, you are the decider of how you will listen to music.

  9. #34
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    I find that physical activity can be beneficial. A mindless task such as walking on a treadmill has provided an impetus for fresh ideas. I don’t stop and write stuff down. I figure if it’s worthwhile I’ll remember it.

  10. #35
    Quote Originally Posted by wiz_d_kidd View Post
    If you don't have anything to say, why are you forcing yourself to say something? If you're just trying to populate your song with lyrics because of some unwarranted expectation of the audience, don't.

    Nothing sounds cheesier than a forced vocal performance singing contrived vocals just because the artist felt obliged to do so.

    All music has to have vocals, right? WRONG! Try expressing yourself musically. Put that anger, angst, love, fear, elation or whatever you're feeling into in well-executed guitar or violin or keyboard passage. Maybe then, once your "message" is more well-formulated, some meaningful words will spring forth to help you express it.

    As for me, I'm perfectly happy listening to an instrumental that expresses some feeling or allows my brain to concoct it's own story to your well-crafted melodies and rhythms.
    Most people seem to prefer music with vocals, even if they don't understand the words. I don't think many people who love Italian, or French music, understand the lyrics. Some people can sing the phonebook and still I would like it.

  11. #36
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rarebird View Post
    Most people seem to prefer music with vocals, even if they don't understand the words. I don't think many people who love Italian, or French music, understand the lyrics. Some people can sing the phonebook and still I would like it.
    Yerp. I have absolutely no doubt that an AI composed and performed lyrical piece will be a global musical hit soon . Perhaps there has already been one.

  12. #37
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    Quote Originally Posted by Splicer View Post
    For me great lyrics make me feel something the way a good novelist does. It's not merely the relating of a story - that's a newspaper article. It's the words as a window into another world. An example of great lyrics would be "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen. It paints a picture of the human condition localized around the a few people but universal. I makes me feel emotions. It's poetry the way the words fit together.
    Great example!

  13. #38
    That's Mr. to you, Sir!! Trane's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rarebird View Post
    Mostly lyrics are to me not that important. Vocals are more another instrument. Most lyrics are foreign to me, though I'm able to understand German and English lyrics (and Dutch of course, but I hardly have Dutch language stuff). If I like lyrics, or rather if they speak to me, they become more important and at that point I'm willing to go the extra mile, to understand them. Some Genesis lyrics I can remember at least parts of. Yes not so much. With non-prog lyrics can be more important and in a way German lyrics speak a bit more to me. I'm better in understanding German than English. But well, I suppose I read more in German than in English.
    With La Chanson Française, there are a bunch of meaningful texts/lyrics that are definitely worthy of remembering. I mean not only in the Brassens, Brel, Ferré, Ferrat era (50 to 70's), but plenty of "singers" have tons of things to say in terms of politics or celebrating human stupidity.
    Bernard Lavilliers, Gerard Manset and Renaud usually have important lyrics, the former using bossa-nova rhythms, the latter countryish rock. It's usually the guys who are writing their own lyrics and even composing the music. Claude Nougaro and Gilbert Becaud have also some excellent texts, but maybe not of the depths of the afore-mentioned artistes.
    Some French rock bands like Trust, Telephone or Noir Désir often had brilliant texts.

    Plenty of other "singers" are being assisted both in lyrics and music: thinking of Johnny Haliday (RIP three years ago) and his best buddy Eddy Mitchel.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rarebird View Post
    Terrible lyrics I mostly hear in Dutch, because that is my mothertongue, so they are less easy to ignore.
    They're also catch your ears easier, as you're utterly fluent in your mother-tongue

    Quote Originally Posted by Rarebird View Post
    I'm not sure, but I think the earlier Joe Jackson lyrics are a bit more important, than his later ones, though there are exceptions.
    I don't remember finding much depth in his early Ska-punk days, and looking at the song titles of Look Sharp & I'm The Man, it kind of confirms cerebral vacuity as it concentrates on the musical energy.
    I'm less an expert on his next albums, though.

    Quote Originally Posted by Splicer View Post
    For me great lyrics make me feel something the way a good novelist does. It's not merely the relating of a story - that's a newspaper article. It's the words as a window into another world. An example of great lyrics would be "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen. It paints a picture of the human condition localized around the a few people but universal. I makes me feel emotions. It's poetry the way the words fit together.
    I must say that Bruce's lyrics in his early albums can sometimes entice sympathy, if you can catch on what's going on in Nu-Joysey (like Spirits In The Night)
    On the other hand, I rarely understood the hoopla about His Bobness' lyrics' supposed depth.
    Last edited by Trane; 1 Week Ago at 10:35 AM.
    my music collection increased tenfolds when I switched from drug-addicts to complete nutcases.

  14. #39
    Quote Originally Posted by Trane View Post
    With La Cha,nson Française, there are a bunch of meaningful texts/lyrics that are definitely worthy of remembering. I mea,n not only in the Brassens, Brel, Ferré, Ferrat era, but plenty of "singers" have tons of things to say in terms of politics or celebrating human stupidity. Bernard Lavilliers and Renaud usually have important lyrics, the former using bossa-nova rhythms, the latter countryish rock. It's usually the guys who are writing their own lyrics and even composing the music.
    French rock bands like Trust, Telephone or Noir Désir often had very good text.

    Plenty of other "singers" are being assisted both in lyrics and music: thinking of Johnny Haliday (RIP three years ago) and his best buddy Eddy Mitchel.
    I don't speak French, so French lyrics mostly go past me. Still I like some French stuff.



    Quote Originally Posted by Trane View Post
    They're also catch your ears easier, as you're utterly fluent in your mother-tongue
    That's why I'm easier annoyed by them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Trane View Post
    I don't remember finding much depth in his early Ska-punk days, and looking at the song titles of Look Sharp & I'm The Man, it kind of confirms cerebral vacuity as it concentrates on the musical energy.
    I'm less an expert on his next albums, though.
    Well I'm thinking of songs like Is she really going out with him and Cancer.

  15. #40
    Quote Originally Posted by Brad 2 the Bone View Post
    The all-time undisputed champion:

    Dear God, that's dire.
    I've seen all cruel people bashing heads each day so sadistic I'm on my way.

  16. #41
    Quote Originally Posted by Sturgeon's Lawyer View Post
    Dear God, that's dire.
    Still I like the music.

  17. #42
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    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    I used to connect with a song’s lyrics if it put into words some belief, idea and emotion I held at the time. Sometimes I would align quite closely with some lyricist or another and then that band/singer provided a temporary musical backdrop to my life. Like looking back at an old Polaroid photograph of myself dressed proudly in the fashion of the time, I sometimes revisit songs and laugh at the weirdness and dysfunction I mistook for insight (although, admittedly, some of the words hold true to this day).
    ung.
    Good points. I think I used to connect with more relationship lyrics when I was younger because I was going through falling love, breaking up, all that kind of stuff when I was in my 20's and often the lyrics felt like they were coming straight from my own head. I think as I have gotten old and been married for more than 25 years I don't relate as much to those type of lyrics as I used to.

  18. #43
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brad 2 the Bone View Post
    The all-time undisputed champion:
    Yes this is exactly what I had in mind as far as what not to do. I still like the song OK.

    Even lyricists I respect can be more or less prone to cliche and stock phrases. Peter Hammill's later work sometimes drifts into this tendency (there are moments on From the Trees where it seems like he's doing it deliberately as a conceptual statement). Context and expectation play a role, I suppose. I expect 1989 Phil Collins to be privileging directness over creativity.

    Quote Originally Posted by pulse View Post
    I find that physical activity can be beneficial. A mindless task such as walking on a treadmill has provided an impetus for fresh ideas. I don’t stop and write stuff down. I figure if it’s worthwhile I’ll remember it.
    This is a great suggestion! States of boredom, or relative mental idleness, can be very good for the creative process, and are too easily avoided nowadays. When it comes time to really hammer down a full lyric I have to put myself into a state of relative isolation and sensory deprivation, and it's often excruciating.

  19. #44
    Quote Originally Posted by clivey View Post
    I am presently sitting among a pile of papers ,chordsheets and instruments attempting to compose lyrics for not 1 but 3 incomplete pieces that I have had in the boil since I was ill at the beginning of the year.
    So it's not going well but it is at least inching forward. As I never avoid the chance for a skive. I wonder if anyone out there has anything to say re Lyrics. I mean there was a time when I could easily recite the complete lyrics of a number of Genesis albums, "so they must have been good then? "Tee hee. Young magnetic minds sponge like abilities.
    Then you get angry Lyrics , Elvis Costello comes to mind .
    All aspects of humanity , but is it really important or just incidental. For a while I was really listening to freestyle rap genres and could not help be impressed with the productivity at the very least.

    Is the message in fact the most important part of the song? Often but How many appreciate numbers in languages they don't understand.

    Ok. Time to get back to my hatchet and stick.
    I think what makes for good lyrics can vary significantly.

    1. In some cases, lyrics with a message are important. Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Lyle Lovett, Neil Finn and Paul Simon are seven good examples.
    2. In some cases, lyrics with a message and a sense of humour are important. Songwriters like Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Lyle Lovett and Paul Simon are five good examples.
    3. In some cases, lyrics that are as much about their rhythmic connection to the music can be important. Jon Anderson, in particular Yes from Fragile through Relayer, is a particularly good example.
    4. In some cases, autobiographical lyrics that aren't too navel-gazing can be great. Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Neil Finn and Richard Thompson are a few good examples.
    5. Dark lyrics when handled with nuance and subtlety can really work. Richard Thompson is probably the best example of a lyricist who can be as dark as all get-out, but never hits you over the head with it.
    6. Lyrics that suggest religious connections can also be great if they're not overly preachy can be great. Again, Richard Thompson, when he was in his Islam period, managed to deeply reflect his beliefs of the time without hammering you over the head with them, and so were particularly fabulous. Ditto Leonard Cohen.

    I know there's a lot of repetition here when it comes to names, but for me, whether it's these guys or others like Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Shawn Colvin, Peter Gabriel, Party Griffin, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, or many, many others, what it comes down to, at least for me, is lyrics that are poetic, make whatever point they want to make without beating you over the head with them, and manage to say things in unique ways are what draw me to them.

    I know I'll get lambasted here, but most progressive rockers don't work well for me, even if I love the artist(s), because they're too direct and lacking in subtlety when trying to get their messages across. I mean, stories, as Genesis did in its Gabriel and early post-Gabriel years work for me because few progressive rock bands were actually storytellers. King Crimson, much as I love them, varied widely when it came to lyrics. Some of Peter Sinfield's lyrics, (sometimes overly) poetic and flowery as they were, could be very good but, at the same time, really fell flat when trying to be "message" songs, like "Ladies of the Road" or "Cat Food." Palmer-James was less flowery so more successful with some of his lyrics ("Book of Saturday," "Starless," "Fallen Angels") but also fell flat with songs like "Easy Money" "Doctor Diamond" and "Great Deceiver"). Belew was better with his kinda post-beatnik lyrics, and was probably the band's most consistently solid lyricist, but even he managed to write some clunkers. Roger Waters excels at "message" songs that really lack in subtlety and best you over the head with whatever point he's trying to make. Gilmour I find more palatable, but I'd still not consider him a great lyricist by a long shot.

    I think it's because the real "greats" (Dylan, Cohen, Newman, Lovett, Simon, Zevon, etc) are more focused on their lyrics than the music, or at least, the words are as important if not more so, than the music when it comes to their writing. That doesn't mean they don't write great music (at least in some cases), just that their focus has always been at least equally balanced between words and music.

    Just my thoughts, which I'm sure can be easily torn apart, so have at it!
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  20. #45
    Outraged bystander markwoll's Avatar
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    And Townes Van Zandt. He has been the inspiration to many of the folks you names, Guy Clark too.
    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
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  21. #46
    I think lyrics are just as important as the music.

  22. #47
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    Lyrics can make or break a song for me. They don't have to be great, but they can't be a series of cliched phrases (that Phil Collins song certainly qualifies, but I've encountered much worse). Prog lyrics often suffer due to the writer's perceived need to stay within a very narrow, limited and unoriginal style, usually without a trace of humor.

  23. #48
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    Quote Originally Posted by jkelman View Post
    4. In some cases, autobiographical lyrics that aren't too navel-gazing can be great. Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Neil Finn and Richard Thompson are a few good examples.
    I'm glad that you mentioned Neil Finn as an example. He's a very underrated songwriter here in the States. I can't think of anyone else who's so good at writing lyrics which at a first glance seem accessible and plainspoken, but which, on examination, have all sorts of nuances and enigmatic touches and little details placed just so. I'm most partial to the first four Crowded Houses, which are deceptively ominous and unsettling in a way his later work isn't (at least to my ears) but he's continued to do impressive work for decades.

  24. #49
    Another case where the music loses its way without the lyrics would be Midnight Oil.
    I've seen all cruel people bashing heads each day so sadistic I'm on my way.

  25. #50
    Quote Originally Posted by jkelman View Post
    I think what makes for good lyrics can vary significantly.

    1. In some cases, lyrics with a message are important. Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Lyle Lovett, Neil Finn and Paul Simon are seven good examples.
    2. In some cases, lyrics with a message and a sense of humour are important. Songwriters like Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Lyle Lovett and Paul Simon are five good examples.
    3. In some cases, lyrics that are as much about their rhythmic connection to the music can be important. Jon Anderson, in particular Yes from Fragile through Relayer, is a particularly good example.
    4. In some cases, autobiographical lyrics that aren't too navel-gazing can be great. Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Neil Finn and Richard Thompson are a few good examples.
    5. Dark lyrics when handled with nuance and subtlety can really work. Richard Thompson is probably the best example of a lyricist who can be as dark as all get-out, but never hits you over the head with it.
    6. Lyrics that suggest religious connections can also be great if they're not overly preachy can be great. Again, Richard Thompson, when he was in his Islam period, managed to deeply reflect his beliefs of the time without hammering you over the head with them, and so were particularly fabulous. Ditto Leonard Cohen.

    I know there's a lot of repetition here when it comes to names, but for me, whether it's these guys or others like Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Shawn Colvin, Peter Gabriel, Party Griffin, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, or many, many others, what it comes down to, at least for me, is lyrics that are poetic, make whatever point they want to make without beating you over the head with them, and manage to say things in unique ways are what draw me to them.

    I know I'll get lambasted here, but most progressive rockers don't work well for me, even if I love the artist(s), because they're too direct and lacking in subtlety when trying to get their messages across. I mean, stories, as Genesis did in its Gabriel and early post-Gabriel years work for me because few progressive rock bands were actually storytellers. King Crimson, much as I love them, varied widely when it came to lyrics. Some of Peter Sinfield's lyrics, (sometimes overly) poetic and flowery as they were, could be very good but, at the same time, really fell flat when trying to be "message" songs, like "Ladies of the Road" or "Cat Food." Palmer-James was less flowery so more successful with some of his lyrics ("Book of Saturday," "Starless," "Fallen Angels") but also fell flat with songs like "Easy Money" "Doctor Diamond" and "Great Deceiver"). Belew was better with his kinda post-beatnik lyrics, and was probably the band's most consistently solid lyricist, but even he managed to write some clunkers. Roger Waters excels at "message" songs that really lack in subtlety and best you over the head with whatever point he's trying to make. Gilmour I find more palatable, but I'd still not consider him a great lyricist by a long shot.

    I think it's because the real "greats" (Dylan, Cohen, Newman, Lovett, Simon, Zevon, etc) are more focused on their lyrics than the music, or at least, the words are as important if not more so, than the music when it comes to their writing. That doesn't mean they don't write great music (at least in some cases), just that their focus has always been at least equally balanced between words and music.

    Just my thoughts, which I'm sure can be easily torn apart, so have at it!
    I’m on board with pretty much all of this. Another approach I’d add is that of glossolalia, focusing upon the texture and timbre of the syllables and their interaction with the music rather than any ‘propositional’ quality. The most obvious example I can think of is Eno’s Miss Shapiro on Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head. David Byrne often took a similar approach.

    Connected to this how many composers will mumble near nonsense lyrics over the tune when composing, and these mumbles often morph into the lyrics because they become indelibly associated with the texture of the piece. This renders any word-by-phrase analysis of the ‘meaning’ of said lyrics as a trip down a rabbit hole. And yet such lyrics often somehow ‘work’.

    The problem with so many prog lyrics is that they are too thought out — often with the writer’s intentions exceeding their grasp. Hence, all those hamfisted attempts at conveying heavy universal truths, or, the existential angst of young white men packaged as emotional depth.

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