Oct 01

NO LANGUAGE, JUST SOUND – Looking Well Beyond the Lyric Sheet

FT3 comments • 7,780 views

If the sounds in music do not combine in a way that excites interest, then there is no reason to pay attention. Potentially lyrics on their own may be intriguing, witty, thoughtful, funny, tender, but they’re not enough on their own — and, where I seem to split with many, not required as a necessary element for enjoyment even when obviously present. One of the more to-the-point jokes I ever came across in a musical context was a cartoon from an early eighties left-wing music/culture mag out of the UK, showing a young anarcho-punk type purchasing the new Crass album for cheap, reading the lyrics and liner notes with deep interest while trashing the vinyl record itself without even listening to it. I admit I happen to like Crass myself (if you need a good laugh, the chorus of “Sheep Farming in the Falklands” is both extremely ill-tempered and somehow just hilariously fun), but I see the point though coming from a radically opposite stance. I don’t give a flying fuck about the lyrics if the music works.

This can and has opened cans of worms elsewhere — quite thankfully, I’ve not really been attracted to any of the open white-power music out there, Skrewdriver being the tip of a particularly cruddy mountain, for instance (I’m waiting for white-power rap myself, if it hasn’t already happened — now there’s a weird-ass mindfuck for you). But my stance does also tie into obvious points about popular music throughout the past century and no doubt well before it — its perceived trivialization and juvenilization of sex, identity, race, power and heaven knows what else. All potentially or in many cases clearly true, but then again, am I looking revelations here, do I desire it? Frankly, no.

Admittedly this is a very selfish gesture. But then the act of listening to music is selfish, not communal. The whole of creation could be screaming at you that A Certain Band eats and then some, and should be dunked in honey and left out for fire ants for their musical crimes against nature, but if you yourself enjoy said Certain Band, then that’s all the justification you need. Rock criticism and its related fields have suffered from this problem of mistaking personal opinion for holy writ — or even mass opinion for holy writ — and the role that lyrics can play is intertwined with this issue. “Listen to something with depth and meaning,” comes the cry! Yes, but what if the music doesn’t thrill you as much as something shallow and meaningless, or at least so somebody else might claim.

But this slightly sidesteps the reality of my own approach, where the meaning of lyrics or lack thereof is not in fact a major issue at all. A lyric can possess deep personal meaning for me, or it might not, but the music and the musical experience itself as a whole must matter above all else, it must connect. From there, everything else can follow or be projected or spun out. Good music will trump bad, however defined by the listener, in all cases, and lyrics are merely one flexible element in that personal equation. One might and can wish that certain lyrics on a favorite song or album be changed, but does that, can it, change the direct kick of the music? Strictly from my point of view, at least — though it seems I’m not alone — the answer is no, or at least, not automatically.

There’s a Lester Bangs quote out there somewhere talking about how the greatness of early rock and roll, at least, was that it was all “yeah yeah yeah,” that the fun was apparent, that the creators did not agonize over its appeal. Perhaps a major oversimplification in the end — I’m sure there were in fact justifications in the end, sometimes unspoken or indirectly delivered — but the point holds because the thrill of the music must itself hold. The thrill itself need not be one of fun as commonly defined, but the thrill itself matters. It can be cathartic, angry, soporific, restrained, but is still a thrill, is still a jolt of energy — and unless one is listening solely to a spoken word piece, music makes the connection.

Yet even the a capella approach relies on tone, on delivery, on sonics. It’s not the naked unadorned thought as might be claimed by some. When, say, Lisa Gerrard lets fly on “Song of Sophia,” it’s the sudden soaring of her voice which provides the connection more than the sheer glossolalia of her lyrics, which are indeed uninterpretable. An extreme example there, but the reaction is to the feel of the voice, the sound, the fluidity or the roughness, the glaze or the precision. Kevin Shields’ breathy moans and sighs mean as much as his guitars, but Aaliyah’s spectral yet direct calls and deceptively calm delivery are as needed as her producer of choice’s beats. Shields is often beyond understanding, Aaliyah quite clear, but both sides work on the same principle — the appeal lies not in what is being said but how it is being said. Jay-Z on The Blueprint is astoundingly direct and it’s his delivery that makes me stop and suddenly react — much more than what he says, which I can’t recall much of offhand.

What needs to be kept in mind, though, is part of an earlier point — namely, that lyrics don’t simply not exist when encountered. As I hear music, again and again, things can and do slip through my straightforward enjoyment of the the music as a total unit. Some lyrics really work for me, some don’t (god knows Wayne Hussey is a terrible lyricist — argh, the puns, run! — but I’m still a Mission fan even now, at least of the old stuff). But sometimes some of the really most amazing moments of a song’s words burrow in deep because for me they really are great. I can’t put my finger on what makes a truly great or memorable lyric any more than I can define a great or memorable song — and the two elements need not always be in sync, that greatness for both, for me to enjoy the song.

And yet here is the final twist or the final realization, perhaps, when it comes to the bands who really mean a lot to me. The Chameleons, the Cure, the Walkabouts, even Joy Division, to return to them again. There are many words, many lines, that stick and stay in my memory, that provide a certain comfort, connection, sustenance. But oddly enough, I realized even then, even with some of the songs that grabbed me most by those artists, “Shadowplay,” “Swamp Thing,” “Disintegration,” “Grand Theft Auto,” more, that I can’t quote all the lyrics.

Heard them endlessly over the years, but I can’t quote the lyrics in full. Shards, but not complete. And why? Because they’re not what I think of when I think of the songs. I think of the connections in general instead, that fire that the songs started in me. The way everything so works very well, that sheer ineluctable, impossible desire to plunge into sound, to surround myself in a feeling that I can’t put into words because it’s not created by words, it’s that’s resistant to discussion, to language beyond generalities or vagueness that not all will agree with. People can ultimately debate the lyrics of anything to death, and yet even for the things that kick in the most, they still don’t define things, they can’t. For me, at least, and surely for many others, perhaps more than is realized offhand, the entirety of the song is needed, and the entirety subsumes the particulars.

I was listening to some of those favorite songs to test my own personal connections and found that it was indeed all of the contents of the songs that mattered in combination, and that as a result some lyrics could still take me by surprise. And it was Joy Division’s “Transmission” that in the end, for me, said it all — a lyric worth all its words, though I only figured it all out when I finally read the lyrics in a book published by Ian Curtis’ widow:

“No language just sound
That’s all we need know
To synchronize love to
The beat of the show
And we could DANCE!”


  1. 1
    Admin on 8 Sep 2006 #

    Hey metafilter-ers, why not comment here :-)

  2. 2
    Andri on 6 Dec 2006 #

    Hey Ned I agree with you on many points. I sometimes too wonder if music and ‘culture’ are two separate things. When listening to a song just by its pure sonic quality, I can appreciate it as it is. Even genre then is irrelevant, because when I think of music as pure sound (and in the context of 2006), genre becomes something that is defined more by my subjectivity rather than how the music actually sounds. Let’s say when you point out in a song, that a guy is playing a repetitive melody line on his guitar, then it’s a fact I won’t argue. But whether it sounds country or rock….quite subjective… especially there’s a lot of evidence of genre hopping and appropriation these days.

    I agree that lyrics are abstracting the actual music. Image of the artists and what society says are also form of abstraction, they are ‘culture’ stopping me from getting to the pure sonic. But I guess that what makes music so meaningful and rich, that it exists as more than just a beautiful (or not) composition of sounds to the ears. With layers of meaning added, I can have a personal relationship with music. It can remind me of happy moments in life or it can make me feel guilty listening to it (eg. because it’s by britney). I keep wondering if music by itsef (i don’t mean instrumental), by how it sounds, can elicit any emotional response. Is it even scientific or is it because we attach our own meaning and cultural value to the music we hear.

  3. 3

    […] who know me well enough will wonder at the fact that I’ve quoted the lyrics in full — an old essay on Freaky Trigger is still my definitive statement on how I feel about lyrics in general.  But I had my various […]

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