When the discussion of the finest lyricists in rock ‘n’ roll comes up, you tend to hear the same names mentioned again and again. Bob Dylan. Leonard Cohen. Tom Waits. Morrissey. Nick Cave. Warren Zevon. They’re all worthy choices, for sure, but we find it a bit sad that there are plenty of other fantastic lyricists who never seem to make their way into such conversations. After the jump, we’ve put together a collection of lyricists who we reckon don’t get the credit they deserve, either because their music is generally undervalued or because their skills in other areas tend to overshadow their linguistic talents. Let us know in the comments who else you reckon doesn’t get the lyrical love they should do.
The world at large still knows The Shins as that band Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State kept raving about, and even casual fans may find themselves humming along with the band’s infectious melodies without ever really stopping to think what the lyrics are all about. If you take the time to listen, though, you’ll find that Mercer really does have a way with both words and startling imagery — we’re particularly fond of “Pink Bullets” on Chutes Too Narrow, with its descriptions of a broken love affair as like “a book you read in reverse/ So you understand less as the pages turn/ Or a movie so crass and awkwardly cast/ That even I could be the star.”
Regular readers will probably notice that we have a bit of a Jens Lekman fixation here at Flavorpill, but it’s not without good reason — the Gothenburg maestro’s songs mix wry humor, starry-eyed romanticism, abiding melancholy and a distinctive turn of phrase, and the result are lyrics that manage to be funny, perceptive and moving, often simultaneously. Take “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” for instance, which is surely the jauntiest song about the impossibility of explaining the experience of depression… ever!
Zappa’s abiding legacy is largely based on his unparalleled musical virtuosity and his sense of humor. But while the latter certainly plays a part in his lyrics (we’re talking about a man who wrote songs called “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Titties and Beer” here), it’s certainly not the sum total of their appeal. Songs like “Dumb All Over,” about humanity’s obsession with religion and the need to fight about it, are as perceptive as they are witty. He never gets a mention in the pantheon of rock’s finest lyricists, but Zappa certainly had his moments.
We were lucky enough to see Portishead over the weekend at ATP, and apart from being blown away by just how amazing Beth Gibbons’ voice sounds live — she’s one of those artists where being able to say she sounds “just like the record” is a compliment — we also got to thinking about her lyrics. Gibbons doesn’t often get a whole lot of praise as a lyricist, perhaps because her voice is so wonderful that it attracts all the plaudits. But her lyrical output with Portishead has been consistently excellent — not linguistically spectacular, but simple and effective. Take “Roads,” for example — “I got nobody on my side/ And surely that ain’t right” is simple and heartbreaking, especially when it’s delivered in the saddest voice you’ll ever hear.
Dee Dee Ramone
The Ramones’ entire schtick revolved around faux-simplicity, from Dee Dee’s shouted “1-2-3-4!” at the start of every song to Johnny’s complete disavowal of guitar solos. But the band were always far more sophisticated than they let on, and Dee Dee wrote some fantastic lyrics, from the squalid heroin realism of “Chinese Rocks” and the rentboy monologue of “53rd and 3rd” to the surprisingly tender homesickness ballad “Danny Says” (later covered by Tom Waits).
Similarly, Iggy gets a lot of credit for being an amazing performer and a man who’s survived a lifestyle that probably would have killed any normal person in about 1971, but surprisingly little for being a great lyricist. Like Dee Dee Ramone, his lyrics seem to be dismissed as simplistic, but they’re anything but, suffused with remarkably good imagery and a sly sense of humor — from the visceral imagery of “Search and Destroy” (“I’m a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” is as good an opening line as you’ll ever hear) to the sardonic kiss-off of “Sick of You” (“I’m sick of hanging around your pad/ I’m sick of your mum and I’m sick of your dad”). Our favorite, though, is Funhouse track “Dirt” — “I’ve been dirt, and I don’t care/ ‘Cos I’m burning inside/ With the fire of life” is as fine a statement of intent as we’ve heard anywhere.
The continuing absence of The Sundays from the world of music is a great shame — they were one of the generally under-appreciated charms of the early 1990s, and singer Harriet Wheeler’s lyrics were a large part of the reason why. She specialized in the sort of kitchen sink vignettes that Jarvis Cocker has become famous for, all rendered with a distinctly English sense of humor (Take “You’re Not the Only One I Know,” where she sang “Where’s the harm in voicing a doubt?/ You’ll find me in the lavatory”) and the sort of quiet angst that was all the more compelling because it was delivered in such a gorgeous voice.
The former mclusky and current Future of the Left frontman gets a reasonable amount of credit for his lyrics, but not as much as he should — in our opinion, he’s one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratically wonderful lyricists in music today. His lyrics are dominated by strange non-sequiturs and implied meanings that are both resonant and difficult to pin down — as he told this writer circa the release of Future of the Left’s Travels With Myself And Another, “I’d struggle to explain what [a song] is about, even though it means something to my brain and heart. Articulating exactly what that is is a big fucking waste of time.” One thing’s for sure, though — no one else writes lyrics like this: “All of your friends are cunts/ Your mother is a ballpoint pen thief/ Notoriety follows you/ Like beatings follow rain.”
We can understand why Ashworth came to abandon the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone moniker last year — even after four of the most beautifully literate records of the 2000s, the questions he got from journalists were along the lines of, “So, those Casio keyboards, eh? What’s that all about?” It’s a shame, because Ashworth’s ideas of using cheap instruments to make a kind of modern-day folk music made perfect sense in the context of his lyrics, which are the sort of keenly observed, character-based pieces that folk music does so well. All of his CFTPA albums were crammed full of great lyrics, although if we had to choose one for a desert island, it’d probably be 2003’s Twinkle Echo.
For a man who once memorably claimed that his words meant nothing — “The deciding factor about what words I use is what vowels they have in them,” he told then-NME writer Chrissie Hynde in 1974, “[and] what their phonetic structure is” — Eno has penned some pretty fantastic lyrics over the years. Choosing his words for their visceral impact means that they don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense written down, but like Andy Falkous’ similarly surreal lyrics, they more often than not they manage to evoke a response in the listener, especially in the context of the music. Which, ultimately, is the point, no?