Sing sweet nothings to me

Entertainment

“I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.” “Lucy in the sky with diamonds.” “Karma police.” Sometimes, it can suddenly dawn on you that some of our dearest lyrics – those we hear pouring from the local pub at closing time, or chanted by droves of festival-goers during the headliners’ set – are actually a little nonsensical.

The supposed failings of lyrics in this regard have been snootily criticised and mercilessly mocked for years, a notable example being comedian Ed Byrne’s famous on-stage flaying of the ever-popular anthem ‘Ironic’ for its consistently erroneous usage of the titular adjective.

Indeed, whilst the popular consciousness continues to sing along, using its hairbrush as an impromptu microphone, the lyric looks set to hold this peculiar position between ridicule and reverence.

But I for one think that the humble lyric deserves more credit than it is often given. Most often, when someone does seek to defend them it is done by arguing that the finest lyrics are worthy of being classed as poetry. Nick Cave’s work is routinely invoked as part of this argument, with the highbrow author Will Self stating that the Australian singer-songwriter’s body of work is the finest verse currently being produced.

Cave certainly plays up the poetic dimension of his work, making repeated allusions to the verse of literary giants like Milton in his songs, recording the album Murder Ballads with the thematic cohesion of a volume of poetry, and even delivering a series of lectures on the love song in Vienna.

Recently his lyrics were published in book form, detached from the songs from which they originally derive, seemingly in a conscious bid to establish them as poems in their own right. Glancing through a copy, I was struck that this was essentially pointless and wrongheaded.

Cave might not agree, but I believe placing lyrics on the crumbling pedestal of high art actually serves to devalue them. Without the sinister and spellbinding instrumentation of the Bad Seeds, Cave’s backing band, the timeless storytelling of one man’s encounter with temptation at the hands of the Devil in “Red Right Hand” loses its peerless power, becoming just another poetic revival of folklore material.

That is not to say that lyrics in any way play second-fiddle to the music, however. They are just as important, and can even be conceived as an additional layer of instrumentation as crucial as the propulsive bass line or the signature guitar solo. Some of the greatest are those that take this ideal to the extreme, exploiting the nonsensical tendency of pop lyrics to create surreal and instantly memorable combinations.

Pavement excelled at this, with such baffling yet haunting lines as “Pick out some Brazilian nuts for your engagement. Check that expiration date, man, it’s later than you think”. Arriving from out of nowhere, mundane whilst also mischievously hinting at some sort of metaphysical, existential meaning, they actually serve to draw attention to the big question permanently hovering over the lyric: does it require a meaning, or is it better if they’re sculpted in such a way as to allow the listener to insert his or her own?

We don’t ask what a guitar riff means, as Pavement highlight: we just let it suggest a mood that we are free to experience in our own way. Their lyrics, and the nonsensical lyrics of The Killers, Radiohead, Alanis Morrissette et al, maybe demand that we appreciate them in the same way. All together now…