The new Wild Beasts album contains some astonishing flights of lyrical fancy (with fancy being the operative word). Who else could get away with a line like “new squeeze, take off your chemise, and I’ll do as I please” without a rap on the knuckles from the pervcops?
So, inspired by their audaciousness, here are 10 tips for aspiring lyricists who’ve already mastered the rudiments of “fine/mine/shine” and wish to graduate to a bolder, more erudite mode of expression.
1: Don’t write about what you know
Go and find out about something, then write about that. PJ Harvey researched the lyrics for ‘Let England Shake’ using actual books. Yes, she channels it all through her vocabulary and poetic sense, but still, she’s not writing about a farm in Yeovil, or being a songwriter.
2: Opening lines are important
Grab your listener by the lapels from the get-go: “I don’t have to sell my soul” (Stone Roses) “I may not always love you” (The Beach Boys) or even “I’d rather shoot a woman than a man” (Big Star).
My personal favourite is from Arab Strap’s ‘Packs of Three’: “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen. But you’ve no idea where that cock has been.” That’s the beginning of a gripping yarn, right there. Speaking of which…
3: Tell a gripping yarn
There’s a song by Roy Orbison called ‘Running Scared’, which is the tale of one man watching his girlfriend look over her shoulder for her former boyfriend, everywhere they go. Then they accidentally meet him, and she has to make a choice, it’s Roy or her ex, who will she choose? You’re already downloading it to find out, aren’t you?
4: Rhythm is a dancer
Your words have to move with the music, either as a perfect flow, where all the stresses are in the right place in the melody, or a more jagged, spluttery thing (think of the Manic Street Preachers writing ‘The Holy Bible’, with poor James Dean Bradfield manfully jamming that scabrous free verse into those stiff melodies).
Alex Turner is good at throwing an internal rhyme into the middle of a line, just to give it a kind of rhythmic elbow, to make it flex in an unexpected way. Like “She would throw a feather boa in the road” (‘The Age of The Understatement’) or “don’t worry your foot won’t get cut, strut carelessly” (‘Glass In The Park’). That’s classy, is that.
5: Archaic slang is your friend
If words are an instrument, olden-days lingo is a sitar or balalaika, it’ll make everything sound exotic, but should be used sparingly. Even if you’re writing about a night in the pub, consider throwing in a word like “jeroboam” or “barkeep,” just to add a touch of lyrical giddiness to proceedings. Orange Juice’s ‘Simply Thrilled Honey’ contains the exclamation “ye gods!” which is almost impossible to sing. Totally worth it though.
6: Don’t be afraid of whimsy
Inspiration will strike in the strangest ways. Just because no-one seems to have had the same idea before, it doesn’t make you wrong. Damon Albarn used the Radio 4 shipping forecast and a teatowel of the British Isles as inspiration for ‘This Is A Low’ and that’s commonly regarded as Blur’s best song.
7: If language fails you, make some up
See the Cocteau Twins or Sigur Ros for details.
8: You wanna droll with it
If you can throw a few funny lines into your serious song, it makes your point stronger and adds humanity and warmth. ‘Common People’ and ‘The Queen Is Dead’ are two very angry songs which both contain a lot of humour. Pete Doherty’s well-worn baseball cap line in ‘Time For Heroes’ is actually quite a banal cry of spluttering fogeyism, best suited to the Daily Telegraph’s letters page. Put it in the context of a boy defiantly checking out his reflection in a riot shield and it becomes cockier, more powerful.
9: If you’re going to be critical, keep it simple
Steer clear of snarky terms like “so-called” or “would-be,” they might fly like fury but they land like sponge. The entire lyric of Randy Newman’s ‘God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)’ is just about the bleakest, weariest shrug in the face of organised religion ever, and it’s just a blunt conversation between God and man. This from the fella who wrote the songs for the Toy Story films: it’s good to have range.
10: There are rules for writing song about writing songs
If you’re really stuck, it’s acceptable to write about songwriting only if you can throw in some coffin black one-liners about some of the great practitioners: “I asked Hank Williams how dark does it get. Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet“, (Leonard Cohen) or “Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital” (Nick Cave). Or you can just lapse into total self-pity, and then mock yourself for doing so, as John Lennon did when writing ‘Nowhere Man’.