Loughlin Joseph

When song lyrics become literature

From Pet Shop Boys to Kate Bush, pop stars are publishing their songs as books. What do their words reveal about them? Originally published January 2, 2019.

for New Statesman

Featured image by Jimmy Turrell.

What happens to a song lyric when it lands on the page? It becomes oddly silent but also not silent. Ghosts of its usual rhythms lie at the beginnings and ends of its lines. The blank space around it seems weirdly disconcerting, like white noise.

This happens, of course, because a song lyric isn’t poetry. A poem exists between pages of paper, bound by its own internal logic. A lyric arrives from the wider world, laden with decades of meaning and remembered melody, and is unmoored violently and suddenly from its bearings. It is also presented for the reader’s eye – which implies an act of choice – not the listener’s ear. The ear could have heard an unforgettable lyric quite by chance on an otherwise ordinary morning. This serendipity disappears in print, although we still hunt for magic within these new leaves.

Books of collected song lyrics are now big business, especially the elegantly designed, expensively produced kind. This phenomenon was kick-started by Faber & Faber in 2011, when it put Jarvis Cocker into a suitably vintage-looking, brown-and-yellow dust-jacket. The typeface spelling out his name deliberately echoed the publisher’s poetry list too, reflecting the status songwriters such as Cocker have gained in popular culture. And why not? Pop music is a distinguished pensioner now with a solid canon: only a hoary naysayer would argue that Bob Dylan’s catalogue of affecting narrative and acute social analysis lacked the cultural heft to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. (Sappho, Pindar and co were writing short songs about emotional states millennia ago, bashing away at their lyres, and calling them lyrics. They would have released them on limited-edition marbled vinyl if they could.)

The publishing industry is also responding to a nostalgic, middle-aged market, of course, for whom pop musicians were once guides and sages, offering intelligent insights into new worlds through an accessible, approachable medium. Actually, who am I kidding? For most grown-ups, they still are, especially in a culture scrabbling about for articulate heroes. Nevertheless, a tension on the page still remains, which Dylan noted in his Nobel speech in June 2017: “Songs are unlike literature… our songs are alive in the land of the living.” By implication, this means something dies when the lyric gets severed, a sentiment that Neil Tennant echoes introducing his book, One Hundred Lyrics and A Poem. “This is not the natural habitat of the song lyric,” he declares.

Before fame, Tennant was an editor for Marvel Comics and Smash Hits, where, he continues, he learnt about “editing text to make it clearer and more focused… I could apply this to song lyrics and the songwriting process as a whole”. This approach sounds oddly unromantic, and the mood it creates affects the lyrics that follow, as fabulous, sophisticated and melancholy phrases frequently fall with similar coldness on the page. Take 1985’s West End Girls, the song that made Tennant famous at 30, inspired by the many voices of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The couplet “if when why what/How much have you got?” sounds like a perfect analysis of Thatcherism when it’s delivered in an upwardly mobile accent holding shadows of the singer’s native North Shields. On the page, it falls with surprising heaviness.

Throughout, Tennant’s precise Englishness requires something bolder to offset its simplicity: you miss fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe’s neon-lit synthesisers, and those turbo-charged disco pulses. Tennant also orders his 100 lyrics alphabetically, which seems an oddly offhand way of dealing with them. It’s a method the American singer-songwriter Will Oldham also uses for his blue-and-gold-embossed collection, Songs of Love and Horror (WW Norton, 304pp, £16.99), adding brief biographical footnotes, like Tennant, after each lyric. His book was more fascinating for me because I knew fewer of the songs. Perhaps the way a fan shapes their own life within a favoured writer’s lyrics is the real problem here.

To work well for the true devotee, a lyric book has to be something other than a simple compendium. An abstracted, artistic version of memoir, perhaps. When these elements creep into Tennant’s book it gains an extra dimension. His mentions of the socialist-inspired, amateur theatre company that got him interested in writing when he was a teenager are fascinating; he also did once tell a lover “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”, as the song from 2000 goes. He discusses the the way words sound too: the title of 1990’s “Being Boring” came from a non-plussed Japanese review (“I liked the bouncy rhythm of this phrase”).

Tennant’s lyrics work best on record when they surprise, as they did me at the age of ten when I heard the line “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” in “Left To My Own Devices”, just before the song exploded into pop. It’s apt, then, that the best part of the book is surprising too. This is the poem that ends it: four simple, devastating lines about the unknown-ness of the ends of our lives (no spoilers, but it’s worth the price tag alone). It proves he’s a good lyricist after all, understanding the power of the unexpected.

No one knows this better than Kate Bush, the first woman to be added to Faber & Faber’s roster of lyricists (Jarvis Cocker, Billy Bragg, Van Morrison and Scott Walker preceded her; the Happy Mondays’ Auden-on-acid Shaun Ryder follows in the spring). Her book, unlike Tennant’s, works magically, possibly because many of her lyrics are structured so strangely. She also adds, in her brief author’s note: “all the lyrics have been reviewed as works of verse without their music and so in some places are more detailed than how they originally appeared on their albums”. Some digging on my part reveals nothing more than her playing with poetical constructions such as “o’er”. To do this job properly, however, weeks of album listening will be required, promoting a deeper understanding of these songs. Bush clearly knows what she’s doing.

How To Be Invisible also sees Bush grouping her songs, without explaining her methods; it’s your job to spot the golden threads connecting these pages. Here are songs about clouds (“Cloudbusting”, “The Big Sky”, “You Want Alchemy”), drifting in and out with wonder. Here are songs explicitly and obliquely about war (“Pull Out the Pin”, “Breathing”, “Experiment IV”). “Army Dreamers” is also in this set, one of many that reads astonishingly on paper. A number 16 hit in 1980, its lyric about a dead soldier reminds you of the brutal economy of Sylvia Plath: “Now he’s sitting in his hole,” runs the most devastating line. “He might as well have buttons and bows.”

Themes recur at mystical intervals too. The rope that ties lovers together in “Sat In Your Lap” appears, like a ghost, in “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” (songs from 1981 and 2011 respectively; their dates are not listed in the book). The second-side song cycles from Hounds of Love (1985) and Aerial (2005) – “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey” respectively – also incorporate pages that go beyond conventional text (the voices murmuring to the drowning woman in “The Ninth Wave” dance across a double-page spread in different typefaces; while in “A Sky of Honey” birdsong is depicted in skittish, angled handwriting). Here is an artist still expanding the possibilities of a form, as she always has.

In Useless Magic: Lyrics and Poetry, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine also doffs her jaunty beret towards Bush. “Babooshka” is listed on a tatty sheet of graph paper as one of her favourite songs early on. As the book takes us forward in time, and Welch’s fame grows, her scribbles progress to Chateau Marmont hotel notepaper.

This is very much a self-conscious, over-ripe young person’s scrapbook. Pictures of Virginia Woolf and Patti Smith are plonked next to lists of pros and cons about seeing a boy at a party (“he will remember how much he likes you”, “she could be there”). Nevertheless, this adds a refreshingly honest intensity to the exercise, as do ideas for lyrics such as: “We were getting ready to go out/the excitement a firework in my mouth.” The inclusion of Welch’s frequent misspellings (her religious cross is a “crusefix”, her plural of sky “sky’s”) also make no apology of her flaws, and her attempts at poems are of varying quality, as she herself admits. The last one is great, though, simply called “I Cannot Write About This”. “Now it is altogether/Too grown up/Too sad/Too ‘the best for us both’/To put into poetry,” she writes, sadly, nailing the slipperiness of language, and how much we demand of it.

But songwriters keep wrestling with this to the end, as did Leonard Cohen. His final collection, The Flame, reveals a man keeping on keeping on until his dying days. In a moving introduction, his son Adam recalls discovering notebooks in his dad’s pockets, drawers, and in the freezer one day as he was searching for tequila. Cohen worked tirelessly on his poems and songs for years. This is someone who still thought of his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, as unfinished.

So how unexpectedly lovely it is that one of the most moving things in this book is an email exchange between Cohen and his friend Peter Scott, a Canadian poet. It’s like a rap battle almost, two old dears contesting the idea of darkness in lower-case letters: “he will make it darker/he will make it light/according to his torah/which leonard did not write,” Cohen retorts, playfully. He died a month later, but his words keep on living. Our job is to take them elsewhere, off the page, and onwards with us. 

Originally published by New Statesman, reposted here as a portfolio item. See the original work.

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