For the past week there’s been a lively thread on Drowned In Sound about the current scene’s most gifted wordsmiths. It’s a provocative topic in some ways, because the noughties are generally held to be a pretty lousy era for lyric-writing, especially in the ‘indie’ realm.
Inspired by U2, the default setting for rock lyrics since the late-’90s has been a kind of wafty, pseudo-epic vagueness; words that simulate great significance without actually meaning anything at all. Coldplay, Snow Patrol, The Killers, Arcade Fire – their lyrics tend to sound vaguely deeply-felt and expansive on first listen, but on closer examination disappear into vapour. Either that, or they’re just flat-out gobbledigook (“Are we human, or are we dancer?”).
The fact that Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ – a track that contains the unbelievably lame couplet “Just a puppet on a lonely string/Oh who would ever want to become king?” – was voted song of the year last night suggests we’ve become so inured to crap, blustery lyrics we don’t even notice any more. Melody is all that matters now.
Meanwhile, if you buy the line that 2009 has been ‘dominated’ by ’80s-informed synth-pop, it’s noticeable how artists such as La Roux and Little Boots have borrowed the sonic textures of the early-’80s, but none of that era’s lyrical high seriousness or topicality; you’ll search in vain for a pop song about nuclear annihilation, or social unrest, or privatisation – or whatever the modern equivalent of those topics might be – in today’s charts.
Indeed, looking beyond synth-pop, from Florence to Bon Iver to Noah And The Whale, it seems the only thing anyone knows how to write about is how much it sucks to get dumped.
Obviously, there are exceptions. Wild Beasts have managed to carve out an utterly distinctive lyrical mode, both piercingly camp and vaguely sinister, while Jamie T’s new record finds him closing ground on Mike Skinner as a demotic chronicler of modern Britain. It’s those gifted lyricists that this blog is designed to celebrate. You’ll find NME critics’ picks below. Who else would you suggest?
James McMahon: I’m a big fan of John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats way with words – mainly because they make me laugh. Take the opening line from ‘Letter From Belgium’ – “Martin calls to say he’s sending old electrical equipment. That’s good! We can always use more electrical equipment!” I think the song is about doing meth, I have no idea what the lyric means, but it’s funny.”
Ben Patashnik: Frank Turner. Picking one of Frank’s lyrics is tough, because he so perfectly sums up life’s little victories and failures with such sympathy that it’s hard to believe he doesn’t follow us around, taking notes on all our thoughts. How about this, from ‘I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous’: “Well life is about love, lost minutes and lost evenings/About fire in our bellies and about furtive little feelings”.
Alan Woodhouse: James Mercer from The Shins – fantastically poetic and romantic, and never, EVER resorts to cliché. He’s a bright spark with a beautiful soul. Example: “And I watch your convictions melt like ice cubes in an ocean” (from ‘Mine’s Not A High Horse’). Or: “See, those unrepenting buzzards want your life, and they got no right/As sure as you have eyes, they got no right” (from ‘Sleeping Lessons’).
Luke Lewis: I’m torn between Guy Garvey, for the way he captures male friendship in such an unsentimental, precise way (the “gentle shoulder charge” bit in ‘Friend Of Ours’ is utter genius), and Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane, who’s obviously not a genius, but has a really fresh voice. I love ‘Paris’ because of its unique premise – platonic male/female friends plotting the future – and its use of idiomatic young person’s English (“I’m on it”), rather than clichés. Plus, he’s got a sharp eye for the kind of sensuous detail people only notice when they’re on drugs, eg “toes curled in the groove” in ‘Jump In The Pool’.