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Thread: Lyrics. How do you judge them

  1. #1
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    Lyrics. How do you judge them

    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.

  2. #2
    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.

  3. #3
    Lyrics , if they don't suck they're good.
    I think iy
    It's easy to recognize bad lyrics , they just don't feel right ,sometimes not east to identify why. Clunky ,awkward , not good. Stupid, annoying subject.
    Ones I enjoy tend to be a bit ambiguous allowing a wide listener interpretation. Makes for a personel experiance. Lyrics that tell a story , that doesn't suck. Lying Eyes , Eagles. Much of the Who's output is interesting. Yes lyrics can be ambiguous and good or clunky shit. Macartney , Lennon excellent at times.
    Random thoughts not to be taken seriously

  4. #4
    IMHO

    I tend to notice the extremes most: amazing lyricists drive home the message of the song with a poetic nuance that can haunt me for days/weeks/months/years afterwards. Conversely, terrible lyrics break the musical "fourth wall" and pull me out of the world of the music. In between are the many vocalists/lyricists whose work neither detracts nor elevates the surrounding music...that isn't a complaint, but rather an endorsement of a solid "balance" between music and words.

    Lyrics sung in a language I cannot understand simply become a melodic instrument. Rap vocals aren't typically melodic but rather add an extra rhythmic element which works well when balanced nicely with the rest of the music. Metal growls essentially act as a cross between rhythm and drone depending on the delivery, a counterpoint to hyper-rhythmic music. Again...balance is the key.

    One particular "nails on a chalkboard" aspect of (IMHO too much) modern prog music and lyrics is that desire to have something "profound" to say. Quite honestly I find significantly more sincerity and quality in a 3-minute pop song about the love interest next door, than 20 minutes of listening to someone rant in endless clichés about some social/political/spiritual notion about which they barely have a superficial understanding.
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  5. #5
    Terrible lyrics I mostly hear in Dutch, because that is my mothertongue, so they are less easy to ignore.

  6. #6
    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.
    Yeah...modern prog bands with horrible lyrics sung in a language other than English...as long as at least the melody is good I am good.
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    It all depends on the artist for me. There are some that I think write excellent lyrics that are a big part of the appeal to me. I really like storytellers like Al Stewart, Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Matthew Parmanter, Warren Zevon, and others. Some just have a way with words like Fish, Steve Hogarth, Joe Jackson, Elton John / Bernie Taupin. Some bands make political / social statements that I find important like Midnight Oil, The Alarm. Bands like Kansas have always had solid lyrics and some bands like Yes and Blue Oyster Cult have lyrics that are just plain strange, but wonderful at the same time. I could go on and on but for me, for some artists the lyrics are very important and for some not so much.

  8. #8
    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.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by clivey View Post
    I wonder if anyone out there has anything to say re Lyrics.
    I guess the first thing to come to my mind is that it's a heck of a lot easier to criticize other's lyrics than it is to write them yourself. After working in an instrumental band for 16+ years, I moved to a classic rock band where we write originals, and I found myself writing lyrics again for the first time in ages. It's not easy, even if you have the latitude to take on more common rock themes, assuming you want to keep it fresh and interesting.

    Quote Originally Posted by clivey View Post
    Is the message in fact the most important part of the song?
    In terms of lyrics, I don't think there's one simple answer or one singular approach. Lyrics can be used to convey a message, or a feeling, or be more abstract. They can be the critical aspect of a song, or can simply be one other component that helps convey the message implicit in the music.

    That latter point for me is critical. As a lyricist, I always start with the music and let it guide me. Often, I start with "dummy" lyrics... just words I put together randomly so I can develop the melody and phrasing of the vocal line, and hear how it interweaves with the music. More often than not, a phrase or refrain from these test lyrics is the spark for the lyrics to the song. It happens naturally, and it makes the music and lyrics fit together nicely, at least in my mind. I know some start with the lyrics, but I've never worked that way

    If you're struggling, my suggestion is to just play the song and see what emerges naturally. Jot down various phrases that come to you while you're playing and see what happens, almost like a brainstorming session. Once you have an opening line, or a refrain in the chorus, you can start to build the rest around that idea. That's how I work, and I've had decent success.

    Quote Originally Posted by clivey View Post
    Often but How many appreciate numbers in languages they don't understand.
    I have no issue with it, but as most people here, I'm a pretty adventurous listener, and also as many here, the music is as or more important to me than the lyrics. This is absolutely not true of the general population who listen to the vocals first and foremost, and the lyrics, particularly those in the chorus, are critical. To me, that doesn't mean the lyrics always have to be awesome, but they need to be solid enough that they convey something to the average listener. A strong chorus is your best bet.

    If you're writing "Proggy" music, that may be different. Something more abstract and thematic might be more effective. Again, let the music be your guide. What is the song calling for? If you can get the feel of that, you've made the first, and I think the most important, step.

    Bill

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    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 would generally agree with that. Everything up through "Laughter And Lust" has fantastic lyrics for the most part, but his more recent stuff has not grabbed me as much.

  11. #11
    Rap is the only genre for which I actively listen to the lyrics (or at least attempt to - some rapid-fire deliveries are hard to follow). Otherwise I largely ignore them and only the truly awful lyrics stand out (like "I am Senor Velasco, I drink my milk with tobasco").

  12. #12
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    Some great responses already. Yep. there are so so many variables that no prominence of opinion is likely to emerge.
    I personally am as impressed by the complex storytelling of Tom Waits as the earthy pen pictures of the Libertines.

    I have noticed that the experience and witnessing of periods of personal anguish ie dark stuff often helps myself in the formulation process.

    Perhaps a lot of successful lyricists " Dryup" result from stuff just becoming too bland and cozy within their existence. Who knows? " Ya can't play it if ya aint lived it" as Bird kinda said

  13. #13
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    Depends what the artist's intention is
    Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.

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  15. #15
    I have always found it easier to find music for lyrics rather than fit words to existing music. But it is usually some combination of the processes. Great lyrics just somehow fit. You have "Roadrunner, roadrunner. going faster miles an hour..." and then you have Peter Hammill...

    Kenneth Koch's books on teaching children to write poetry are lovely and liberating: Rose, where did you get that red?

    Have fun!

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  16. #16
    Wow, some great discussion here.

    My tuppence'orth:

    The importance of lyrics depends on the nature of the music. For a short song with little musical development, they are pretty much vital. Think protest (and other "message") songs and you'll see what I mean. "Eve of Destruction" or "Blowin' in the Wind" are pretty much useless without their lyrics. (Indeed, the habitual reference to Dylan as a "poet" quietly ignores the quality of his music.)

    For more complex music? Well, Magma has repeatedly proved that lyrics can be simply part of the music with no real meaning at all. (Someone will now take it upon him- or herself to inform me me that Kobaian lyrics actually have deep, imporant meaning. A break unto me give.)

    On the other hand ... something relatively musically ambitious like Pete Townshend's "Slit Skirts" or (God I know I'm going to get slammed for this) Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" can have the music interwoven with the lyrics so that either loses a great deal without the other.

    So the answer is, it depends. What, to you, is your music for? If your purpose is purely musical, you can just pick words that sound good with the music, even if they don't make a lot of sense; or you can pick words that sound good with the music and then impose sense on them (I believe I first got this idea from Eno); or you can think about the feels the music gives you and try to find words that match.

    Or, you can forget about words entirely and give the main melody to a flute or something.
    I've seen all cruel people bashing heads each day so sadistic I'm on my way.

  17. #17
    With a lot of stuff of which I like the lyrics, I like the music as well. One of my favorite German songwriters often has very good lyrics. Actually I have 2 favorite German songwriters, but from one of them I have a book with all the lyrics he wrote for his band. (He also made some solo-albums). The book has the lyrics in the dialect of Cologne, which is how they are sung and in German.

  18. #18
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    Good, thoughtful or interesting lyrics can really push music to another level. Roger Waters, Maynard James Keenan, Ray Weston, Steven Wilson are a couple of strong lyric writers, that come to mind for me.

    I've written lyrics on occasion and although I do enjoy it and it's satisfying when something comes to me that I like, it doesn't come as easily to me as others. Some people are just naturals. One of the biggest traps that I've found, is writing something and then when I read it back it just sounds too pompous, self-important or preachy. It can be a fine line to walk. When it works and you're happy with it, it's definitely a great feeling. Have fun.

    Neil

  19. #19
    Member hippypants's Avatar
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    I listen to lyrics, but they seem to be secondary to the vocals and how they are sung. I'd say 75% of them I wouldn't know what they mean anyway, and that's probably the best way to leave it open for the interpretation to the listener. However I remember the melody and the lyrics to many. I would say for the majority of the listening public, rhyming lyrics and ones that tell a story they can relate to or that they remember and sing along with and getting someone to hear and rehear a song is mostly won. I'm thinking Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jame Taylor, Eagles Simon & Garfunkel and so many others.

  20. #20
    While my music collection does contain instrumental music and songs with extended musical passages (duh prog) I much prefer music with lyrics. My standard for lyrics is that they avoid or minimise cheesiness, cliché and clumsiness. I don't mind if the lyrics cover common topics (love!) if the author can bring some originality to it in approach or word choice etc. I'm willing to grant some leeway if the music and melody are strong but I will always notice a clunky lyric - pompous, self-conscious lyrics are a particular turn-off.
    In terms of the message of the lyrics or their sophistication or lack thereof - I have no hard and fast rules. It all comes down to whether or not I think the lyrics work in the context of the song.
    My favourite Neil Peart lyrics are from Mission:

    It's cold comfort
    To the ones without it
    To know how they struggled
    How they suffered about it
    If their lives were
    Exotic and strange
    They would likely have
    Gladly exchanged them
    For something a little more plain
    Maybe something a little more sane
    We each pay a fabulous price
    For our visions of paradise
    But a spirit with a vision
    Is a dream with a mission

    One of my favourite Blackfield songs is Go To Hell - the lyrics are comprised of the following words (with repetitions):

    Fuck you all, Fuck you
    I don't care
    Anymore
    Go To Hell
    "One should never magnify the harsh light of reality with the mirror of prose onto the delicate wings of fantasy's butterfly"
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  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by clivey View Post
    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.
    I think you can kinda fit lyrics into four buckets, roughly: (1) lyrics which attempt to make a point, whether that's a social message, a philosophical idea, whatever. (2) lyrics which attempt to express an emotion (most commonly either love songs or I'm depressed songs) (3) stories (4) abstract phrases which aren't necessarily trying to make sense. All four approaches are valid, potentially, and all are reasonably common, and they can be somewhat blended. But I find it helpful as a lyricist to know which of those goals I'm aiming for when I start writing.

    For me what's most important is avoiding cliches and stock phrases. If I hear a lyricist using phrases like "there's no turning back," "enough is enough," "you're playing with fire," etc. then it's difficult not to immediately dismiss the song. Obviously I can think of multiple songs I like which employ the three sample phrases I mentioned just now, but (a) they're old songs so they get a pass and (b) they're very well-done.

    I also hate it when you can tell a lyricist is choosing a word only because they need to fit around a rhyme. I mentioned this in another thread, but anytime someone ends a line with the word "girl" I tense up waiting for the next line to end with "world" and am generally annoyed when it does. In my own writing I'll much sooner employ very loose slant rhymes than allow the need for a rhyme to steer the ship.

    Personally, I read a lot, both fiction and journalism, and I couldn't write lyrics if I didn't have a constant intake of words. Sometimes this is thoughts or ideas, sometimes it's a phrase. Just as a random example, I was trying to write a lyric for a song a few years ago and happened to be re-reading Don Delillo's Underworld. I came across the line "I'll tell you what I long for, the days of disarray, when I didn't give a damn or a f--- or a farthing." That's also a feeling I have, but it would never have occurred to me if I hadn't happened on that line. It became adapted into the first line of a lyric which came, from then, with remarkable ease. So if you're stuck on writing words, spend a few days reading things you enjoy.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by EBES View Post
    For me what's most important is avoiding cliches and stock phrases.
    The all-time undisputed champion:


  23. #23
    Outraged bystander markwoll's Avatar
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    Lyrics can stand alone, like a poem or story.
    It depends on the songwriters storytelling ability if it is successful
    I think successes with those type of lyrics are hard to achieve, but very rewarding.
    Otherwise it's a package deal for me.
    Words spit like notes . Inflection, intonation, and delivery are integral to the success of the song.
    The actual storytelling is not as important as the impact the word sounds

    I will say that I have lost interest in a few bands that I thought had a good package, until I read the lyrics.
    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
    -- Aristotle
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  24. #24
    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 a few people but universal. It makes me feel emotions. It's poetry the way the words fit together.
    Last edited by Splicer; 1 Week Ago at 04:09 PM.
    No matter what anyone says, you are the decider of how you will listen to music.

  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by Brad 2 the Bone View Post
    The all-time undisputed champion:

    My first reaction to your post was "is this really an egregious example?". Then I gave it a listen and holy shit it really is chock full o'cheese. I'm quite familiar with this song and yet the banality of the lyrics has never struck me before - I think I gave it a pass because the music is, to me, quite listenable. One thing about this song I recall - PC wrote it for Danny DeVito to use in his film "The War Of The Roses". DeVito rightfully rejected it - it's far too lightweight and superficial for that black comedy.
    "One should never magnify the harsh light of reality with the mirror of prose onto the delicate wings of fantasy's butterfly"
    Thumpermonkey - How I Wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman

    TESTING TESTING

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