Last week we ran a post on the people who we thought were rock ‘n’ roll’s most underrated lyricists — artists who don’t get the credit they deserve for their writing, either because they’re better known as guitarists/producers/crazy performers, or just because they’re generally underappreciated. We got some great feedback, and some excellent suggestions in the comments section, and all was very congenial. But last week’s post does raise one obvious question: If those were rock ‘n’ roll’s most underrated lyricists, who are its most overrated? We’ve taken the plunge and put together a list of the latter. Again, to be clear, this isn’t meant to be any sort of definitive list of worst lyrics or lyricists — Des’ree, your throne is secure — just those who we reckon don’t get enough scrutiny for being either a) not that great or b) not quite as great as people seem to think they are. So, what say you, readers? Are there more names you’d like to nominate? Or do we just need to join the witness protection program?
Now, look, don’t get us wrong here. We are huge Lou Reed fans (even after he lived up to his reputation by being thoroughly unpleasant to us during an interview last year), and no one is denying that he has written some of the best rock ‘n’ roll lyrics ever — any single choice from the likes of “Heroin,” “Street Hassle,” “Candy Says,” or even “Coney Island Baby” would be enough to guarantee a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyricists’ Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed. But it does seem like he loses interest at times — whether it’s comically bad clangers like “Just like poison in a vial/ Hey, she was often very vile” (from “Caroline Says II”) or generally lackluster songs like “My Red Joystick,” Reed has been responsible for a surprising number of pretty awful lyrics. When he’s on form, he’s up with the very, very best. But we think he’s dropped enough stinkers over the years to not entirely merit his reputation as a consistently great lyricist.
Paul Banks of Interpol
A while ago, while we were tooling about on the Internet, we stumbled across this gem from the late and much-lamented Stylus magazine: the top ten worst lyrics from Interpol’s first album. As with Lou Reed, we’re actually pretty big fans of Interpol (or the first album, anyway), but throughout the band’s career, Banks’ lyrics have zig-zagged constantly from the sublime to the ridiculous, often within the confines of the same song. Any of the lyrics in the Stylus feature are conclusive proof of the ridiculous end of the spectrum, but in particular, we always cringe when we hear the couplet “Her stories are boring and stuff/ She’s always calling my bluff” in the otherwise rather great “Obstacle 1.”
Serj Tankian of System of a Down
The crown prince of high school poetry, Tankian’s been trading off his reputation as an alleged latter-day left-wing hero for far too long. While we don’t disagree with the sentiments behind his lyrics, his pitchfork-waving tirades are full of the sort of simplistic demagoguery we generally decry (and justifiably so) when it comes from the right-wing side of the political spectrum. And that’s not even mentioning his poetry. Or the fact that he once wrote a song called “Beethoven’s Cunt.”
Bernard Sumner of New Order
It almost feels distasteful to pick on Sumner — it’s hard enough following in the footsteps of a remarkable lyricist like Ian Curtis, let alone when that lyricist happened to be a friend of yours who committed suicide. But still, Sumner’s put his lyrics out in the public domain, so it’s only fair to critique them, especially when it seems like no one else really does. To be fair to the singer, some of the lyrics work better in the context of the song than they do on paper — it’s only when you write out “I would like a place I could call my own/ Have a conversation on the telephone” that you look at it and start thinking about what a terrible couplet it is.
Matt Bellamy of Muse
You might argue that, hey, surely no one rates Muse for their lyrics, but you’d be wrong — the NME website ran a readers’ poll a while back as to the all-time best lyricist in rock ‘n’ roll. The winner? Um, yeah. Now, we know these polls aren’t scientific, but still, this suggests to us that there’s still a reasonably substantial group of people somewhere out there who need to be told that no matter how fast Matt Bellamy can play the guitar, “You burn me from a distance/ Your brain needs some assistance” is not a good lyric.
Like Lou Reed, when Oberst is on form and trying hard, he’s a great writer. When he gets lazy, however… Well, that’s when you get something like “When the President Talks to God,” which despite its heartfelt and laudable sentiments, is as ass-clenchingly mawkish a lyric as anyone’s written anywhere in the last decade or so.
It seems that pretty much every teenage boy goes through a Doors phase — the time when you get stoned with your friends and listen to “The End” on repeat and marvel at the profundity of it all. Once you disengage yourself from the bucket bong, however, you come to realize that maybe “Ride the snake/ To the lake/ The ancient lake/ The snake is old/ And his skin is cold” isn’t such a wonderful piece of lyricism after all, no matter how good the song is.
Similarly, going through a giggling-at-the-“Lemon Song” phase seems to be something of a teenage rite of passage. But while that particular number borrows heavily from Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, there are plenty of other Led Zeppelin lyrics that are entirely Plant’s own work — which means that he has to take full responsibility for how terrible some of them are. We’re not arguing that Plant hasn’t had his moments, but then, perhaps that’s why he seems to get a free pass for the faux bluesman schtick of much of the band’s early work, or the sword ‘n’ sorcery piffle that pervades songs like “The Battle of Evermore” (and the inexplicable Lord of the Rings verse in “Ramble On”).
Chris Martin of Coldplay
We’re surprisingly big U2 fans here at Flavorpill, but we do have to admit that Bono’s penchant for lyrics that are heavy on symbolic portent and light on specifics started a trend that has had some pretty dire consequences. We could call out Bono himself here, but although we can identify the very moment when his lyricism took a gleeful running leap over the shark — it was during the middle eight of “Staring at the Sun” — he actually wrote some pretty great lyrics in his early years. Heavily U2-inspired latter-day stadium poseurs like Coldplay, however, skipped the writing-good-lyrics-in-their-early-days part and went straight to the writing-meaningless-but-dramatic-sounding-piffle stage. Sure, Chris Martin has written some decent lyrics — we quite like “The Scientist,” in particular — but for all that the British press continues to laud him as a great modern-day songwriter, his lyrics are far too full of lines like “Just because I’m losing/ Doesn’t mean I’m lost” or “Those who are dead are not dead/ They’re just living in my head” for our liking.
Oh, come on, Dylan fans. Before you head straight to the comments to section to tell us that we’re damn kids and that we need to study the history of music and all such things, wait. We don’t think Dylan is bad. And this isn’t gratuitous iconoclasm. But we do get awfully tired of hearing the rock ‘n’ roll canonical orthodoxy from the likes of Mojo and Rolling Stone that constantly anoints Dylan as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriter there is, was, and will ever be. Yes, Dylan has written many marvelous songs over the years. He also wrote the lines, “Now you see this one-eyed midget/ Shouting the word, ‘Now’/ And you say, ‘For what reason?’/ And he says, ‘How?’/ And you say, ‘What does this mean?’/ And he screams back, ‘You’re a cow/ Give me some milk/ Or else go home.” Some perspective, please.