Wordsworth was famously rather good at writing about nature. “The ocean is a mighty harmonist,” he said, for example. Nice. Anyway, this got us thinking: what are the most poetically beautiful lyrics about the natural world? Anything from constellations to forests, hummingbirds to snow leopards, thunder storms to mountains, literal or metaphorical? Lots of musicians have written songs about animals and the like but what about the ones that transcend a basic mention? (We’re not talking ‘I Am The Walrus’). Here’s 12 stunning examples.
Paul Simon – ‘Graceland’
The second track on Paul Simon’s seminal ‘Graceland’ was written about a road trip he took after splitting up with the actress Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia). Before he describes the memories of his marriage with words so concise and heart-breaking – “the way she brushed her hair from her forehead” etc – Simon sets the scene. “The Mississippi delta was shining / Like a national guitar.” The ‘National’, by the way, is one of those shiny metal types of guitar. Even if you’ve never travelled to the southern States, the lyric’s a vivid picture of the coastal Delta wetlands shimmering under the beating sun.
Bob Dylan – ‘Sara’
Never has “some kelp” sounded more romantic. From Dylan’s 1976 album ‘Desire’, ‘Sara’: “Now the beach is deserted / Except for some kelp / And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore / You always responded when I needed your help / You give me a map and a key to your door”… It’s made all the more poignant knowing that though Sara Dylan was present during the recording of Dylan’s desperate tribute, their relationship was falling apart.
Radiohead – ‘Separator’
Radiohead are no stranger to lyrics about the natural world, but they’re often more concerned with the way humans are damaging the environment. ‘Separator’ is one of the later tracks on ‘The King Of Limbs’, an album filled with pastoral references, bird song and sonic wooziness. Most recounted dreams are deathly dull but Yorke’s sounds pretty cool: ”The sweetest flowers and fruits are hanging from trees / Falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me,” he drawls soporifically.
Björk – ‘Desired Constellation’
Björk’s tackled the cosmos more than a few times over her career. ‘Medúlla’, her 2004 album, was named after the Latin word for marrow. And on ‘Desired Constellation’ she creates a nifty metaphor for destiny. “With a palm full of stars I throw them like dice / Repeatedly I shake them like dice / And throw them on the table / Repeatedly Repeatedly / Until the desired constellation appears And I ask myself: How am I going to make it right? ” Taking destiny into her own hands to another level.
Kate Bush – ‘The Big Sky’
‘The Big Sky’ is Kate Bush’s ode to that childhood game where you look at a cloud and pretend you can see a dinosaur or a Shreddie or Ant and Dec. It’s typically surreal: ”That cloud, that cloud / Looks like Ireland / C’mon and blow it a kiss now / But quick ‘cause it’s changing in the big sky.”
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Joni Mitchell – ‘Woodstock’
It’s hard to believe Joni Mitchell never went to Woodstock, such was the poetic power of her description. Her boyfriend Graham Nash described it to her but she actually wrote it holed up in a NY hotel room because of a TV engagement. The ultimate FOMO moment, we imagine, especially since the song has become the counter-culture anthem for the 1969 festival. Mitchell imagines the notorious dairy farm in Catskills as some kind of surreal Eden: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” before the startling image of ‘bomber jet planes’ turning into butterflies. Shout out too to Mitchell’s description of clouds as “ice cream castles” and “rows and floes of angel hair” in ‘Both Sides Now’.
Cannibal Ox – ‘Pigeon’
An anomaly in this list perhaps, in that pigeons aren’t obviously beautiful. But Vast Aire and Vordul Mega use birds as a metaphor for street-life hustlers “conjested on a majestic street corner / that’s a short time goal for most of ‘em / ‘Cuz most of ‘em would rather expand their wings and hover over greater things.” They elevate pigeons into the sublime before bringing it down to earth with the ‘pizza crust’ pay-off.
Bill Callahan – ‘One Fine Morning’
Ever imagined the mountains bowing down like a ballet? Probably not. Bill Callahan is the master at totally unique and inventive bucolic similes. One of the prettiest references come from ‘One Fine Morning’ on the 2011 ‘Apocalypse’ album: “And the mountains bowed down / In the morning sun / Like a ballet of the heart.”
Pixies – ‘Where Is My Mind?’
Black Francis wrote ‘Where Is My Mind?’ after scuba-diving in the Carribean. “This very small fish trying to chase me,” he explained. “I don’t know why — I don’t know too much about fish behaviour.” From Pixies’ debut album ‘Surfer Rosa’, it probably as the greatest pronunciation of Caribbean in popular culture. “I was swimmin’ in the Caribbean / Animals were hiding behind the rocks / Except the little fish. “
Elbow – ‘The Birds’
Ornithological references are particularly popular in music. Perhaps they lend themselves to metaphor in a more poignant way than earwigs or hamsters. In ‘The Birds’ Guy Garvey casts an unknown number of the creatures as implicit in some kind of guilt-inducing, secret relationship. They watch him “In the deepest grass of springtime / In a reckless guilty haze,” and bless with their “tiny racing hearts.”
PJ Harvey – ‘The Last Living Rose’
PJ Harvey’s description of England in ‘The Last Living Rose’ from her 2011 masterpiece ‘Let England Shake’ could be one of her greatest poetic moments – and that’s saying something. The first verse needs to be quoted in full:
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey, damp filthiness of ages,
And battered books and
Fog rolling down behind the mountains,
On the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.
Fog never sounded so exquisite.
Charles Trenet – ‘La Mer’
Chanson legend Charles Trenet wrote over a 1,000 songs while he was alive in the 20th century but his most famous must be ‘La Mer’. He describes the ocean as an “infinite azure shepherdess… dancing along the shores of clear bays” before getting a little more abstract, depicting it as something maternal, cradling “the rusty house… along the shores of clear bays.” The pay-off is even more beautiful: “The seahas rocked my heart for life.”
Go on then. What are you favourite nature references in song?