Sometimes a bunch of words and a melody come together and its like they could never be any other way. Certain words fit so nicely into certain melodies it makes everyone feel good.
I just read this interview with Paul McCartney where he talks about writing Norwegian Wood. When you write without any kind fo recording equipment you’ve got to find other ways of preserving the song you’re writing – you’ve got to write it down or remember it. So if, like me, you’re musically illiterate, you have to make your tunes catchy and your words can really help with this. “If you can’t remember it, it’s not good.”
But this is surely only true of some kinds of songs. Creating an energy between words and music isn’t the only way of writing songs. The week before last I went to a really wonderful show at The Cube where I saw Balky Mule, The Liftmen and the amazing Papa M and the whole thing really made me think about the place of lyrics in songwriting.
The Balky Mule consisted for this show of guitar, drums, saxophone and keyboard and all of the songs were played without lyrics. I happen to know that the songs will have lyrics but they weren’t ready in time for the show. For me this is so interesting because my songs are extremely lyric driven. I could maybe leave a line or two unwritten, maybe even a verse but mostly, my songs are the lyrics and the chords and melody just fall in to place around them. But Balky Mule writes his songs from the music outwards, creating really a distinctive and galloping rythyms. What was amazing to me was how I could tell that the songs would be great with his singing, but they still sounded absolutely like Balky Mule songs and were still extremely engrossing without vocals. What is more I suppose the lack of vocals gave me the chance to think about the other instruments more. I know I tend to get pretty distracted by voices and lyrics so it was nice to focus in other things.
The fact is words can really clutter up a song. The second band to play, The Liftmen had some really interesting and exciting music going on, lots of shifting rhythms and styles. But sometimes I felt like the lyrics really distracted from that. They seemed at times purposefully comic and obscure. I don’t think the phrase “flat badgers” fits all that well into a melody. But I do want to emphasise that by this point I was definitely over thinking the lyrics and they really are a fun band to watch. This song in particular is really nice (and not just because it sounds a bit like my name).
Papa M played a beautiful set that really showcased the interplay between words and music. He started and finished the set with long instrumental pieces layering guitar with bass in atmospheric tunes. I often don’t like to see a man noodling on a guitar for too long (it is in fact one of the things I hate most in the world) but Papa M does it really well. I think what’s good about his music is that it is rooted in melody – there is always something solid at the base of his musical ramblings. Also the tone of his guitar is just gorgeous; really glowing.
In the middle of the set he sang some songs that were really sweet and honest, and quite a contrast to the lush fabric of his instrumental work. His singing effected his guitar playing, making it more basic and hesitant which I liked. His voice was confessional and tender and a little rough even. Someone opening their mouth to sing has such an effect on a room – it demands a kind of focus, even if the lyrics aren’t taken in as words. Just the fact of a singing person will change the kind of attention an audience pays. I could feel the change at The Cube and I thought it was a really great format for a set – to go from instrumental to lyrical and then back to instrumental.
I can’t imagine ever trying to write a song without lyrics. I don’t have anywhere near enough understanding of music and sounds to create something without words. It’s like whenever I draw a picture (which is rarely) my favourite moment is when I label it. And when I go to an art gallery I always look at the title before I look at the piece of art. But songs without words are a complex and beautiful thing that can express different concepts by virtue of their being a different form to lyrics. I suppose I’ve been wondering this week whether a song that could stand on its own lyrically or musically would be the definition of a great song. I don’t think it is because songs can be so many different things and I suppose their greatness comes from the interplay of a myriad of factors rather than the creation of perfect singular elements. But I might be wrong. This is the definition of a great song anyway.