Heads On Sticks & Ventriloquists

The prodigious writings of a tortured genius.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Words and Melody

I wish that I didn't constantly talk about music in this blog, but it's usually what I'm thinking about, so let's just go with it.

I've often asked myself what is more important in music: the instrumentation or the lyrics. I mean obviously you need both to have a good song, but which weighs more? Really, it's sooo subjective that it's almost pointless to debate it, but it's late and I don't start work for like a week, so I need to fill this absence of sprightliness in my life.

First let me say how wonderful melody, tone, and overall sound are. Without words, music can still be overwhelmingly moving and affecting. This is especially true of classical music. I enjoy many modern bands that take the instrumental route, such as Pelican (whom I was able to see live recently and they were fantastic) and Explosions in the Sky. Hell, to me, even a band like Sigur Ros is instrumental because I don't speak Icelandic (or Hopelandic) and his voice seems more like an instrument than a pedestal for meaning to sprout from. I once heard someone say that they thought the human voice was the most beautiful instrument. I think I would agree with that.

So, even the sound of the voice must be considered an instrument, not placed in the lyrics section of the argument. Oftentimes I can't hear or don't pay close enough attention to the lyrics. And while a good song can really floor me, a good lyric added to that is what really crushes me. I was listening to this Canadian pop-punk group, Moneen, the other day, not really paying attention to the words. However, in the last song on their album, the clearest line is "...and kill yourself, surprise your friends" and it really had an impact on me. It's such a devastating line, especially since I wasn't expecting it. It's moments like this, where it's almost undeniable that my connection point with music is through the lyrics.

The problem is, I most likely won't listen to an artist with good lyrics when I don't like the music. Here's how lyrics are effective: the music must be the main focus to get people to listen, once that is accomplished, good lyrics are vital. Oftentimes, when people list guilty pleasures in music -- or pop culture in general -- it is because the words or subtext of it are less than thrilling. For me, this vice is the band Hellogoodbye. I think they have the catchiest damn songs, but their lyrics are just ridiculous. But I don't fault them because I don't think they're out there to do anything but have fun.

All of my favorite songs begin with good tunes, but then get matched with the right lyrics, pushing them so much further. Case in point: the Modest Mouse song, "Trailer Trash". The instrumentation is very loose and flowing -- by itself nothing very special. However, singer Issac Brock begins spitting gems of lines over the jangly pseudo-ballad: "Short love with a long divorce / And a couple of kids of course / They don't mean anything" and "Taking heartache with hard work / Goddamn I am such a jerk, I can't do anything / And I shout that you're all fakes / And you should have seen the look on your face". It just propels the song to a whole new place, plus it gives it a literal meaning. While adding a literal meaning to songs through lyrics can alienate people that would relate to the instrumental mood, it creates an even more powerful mood for people that can relate to the lyrics. Another example of this sensation is the final track to Radiohead's album "Kid A". It is very sparse, with just a haunting organ and harp. Thom Yorke's final words before the song dissolves into an ambient haze are "It's not like the movies / They fed us on little white lies / I think you're crazy, maybe / I think you're crazy, maybe / I will see you in the next life".

Plus I think most Modest Mouse lyrics are really great. Other bands that I feel have far better than average lyrics are the Pixies (watch their Letterman performance here, it's fantastic), Bjork (her lyrics are generally simple, but very cinematic, especially when coupled with the backing music), Bright Eyes (his lyrics far outweigh his musical abilities in my opinion), Every Time I Die (sarcastic, hilarious, and generally scathing), The Flaming Lips (dare I say, prophetic? ...), The Microphones, and Wilco.

I'll close this post with the full lyrics to a song by one of my all time favorite bands, The Dismemberment Plan -- a band who I think has some of the best lyrics out there. The song is called "Back and Forth". I'll divide it into sections to make it easier to digest, but seriously read them because they are wonderful.

There’s a kind of music that reminds me of you
It’s all clear expensive drinks and shiny shirts
And the click of heels as they descend from the taxi
Like the first foot on the moon, oh, and it glows with ache
And if it hits me right it’s almost too much to take
And it’s got right angle razor thin lines
That turn and swerve like perfect sines

As we dress to the nines in an

Attempt to leave it all behind

In a search of the moment between the seconds where

Everything is just fine
That silver thread imbedded deep within our spines

And I used to be kind of weird about this
A fear of dependence on a guilty gilt-edged
Hedged transcendence that makes us liars

And tense when we look down and realize

That nothing really suspends us
But it was never just another
Saturday night

Not with you in attendance

So throw your hands in the air
And wave them like you just don’t care

It’s on a whim; it’s on a dare

To shrug away what we can’t bear
And we’re going back and forth
And back and forth and back and forth and back

We’re going back and forth

And back and forth and back and forth and back

And it’s a deep blue see-through membrane that protects us

It connects us, a pulsing cellophane

Party-train skein that helps us and

Envelopes and keeps us locked inside

Forever and ever along for the ride

And we’re moving through a phosphorescent gel

A semi-solid self-lit ocean and it’s a funny notion, isn’t it?

Yeah, but I’m kinda digging it
And it’s rigged and isn’t nearly so big
And it speaks only of its own
Perpetual near miss
Like the uncertain memory

Of a stranger’s mistaken kiss

And faces slide by in glowing shadows
Like snowbound ghosts that go up and down

In epileptic shivers and negative radioactive slivers

In a landscape of endless dull glitter

And a taste in my mouth so sweet, yet so bitter
And we exhaust ourselves trying to get there

Somebody scream—all right

We’ll try to fill the echoless night

So fasten up and hold tight

We can’t give up without a fight

And we’re going back and forth

And back and forth and back and forth and back

We’re going back and forth

And back and forth and back and forth and back

So in the end, whatever, we die, we dissolve

Equations unbalanced, riddles unsolved

And we were never connected or involved

Except for the intersections and crazy mathematics

With no time and no space and no schedule and no place

And we pass right through it without a trace

And sometimes that music drifts through my car

On a spring night when anything is possible
And I close my eyes and I nod my head
And I wonder how you been and I count to a hundred and ten
Because you’ll always be my hero
Even if I never see you again

By the way, I'm still doing guest week over at Marmaduke Can Vote and CTRL-ALT-DELETE has a new format.


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