Not long after he released Ghost on Ghost I heard an interview of Sam Beam wherein he nailed the difficulty of writing good lyrics. He described that tight line an effective lyric must walk between specificity and relatability, all while avoiding (to continue the Iron-and-Winey circus metaphor) the fatal plunge into what he called the ‘saccharine’. There must be things (real objects, places, people) in a song or else there’s nothing lyrically for a listener to grab ahold of. On the other hand, as Beam pointed out, a specific reminiscence runs the risk of drawing a line around your experience that no one else can cross because they weren’t there. Good lyrics pull a listener into the world of the song by giving them physical reference points that are both concrete and transcendent.
It does seem like many of Beam’s own lyrics wander into abstraction (to be fair, he sings through a beard in which almost anything could get lost). But he is at least aware of the tendency. The first time I saw him on stage he walked up to the microphone and opened with, “Y’all ready to get f-in’ mellow?”
Coming at the same issue from another direction, Flannery O’Connor says in her essay The Art of Fiction that, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” Specific concreteness is the threshold for any sort of literary art (song lyrics included).
Jens Lekman, in all his weirdness, hits this balance often. His narrative lyrics jump from the hyper-specific to the effortlessly philosophical. Take the chorus from ‘Waiting for Kirsten’: “I can’t believe no one told her before that in Gothenburg we don’t have VIP lines. In Gothenburg, we don’t make a fuss about who you are. In Gothenburg, we don’t have VIP lines. But then I bit my tongue, and the taste of blood was so strong.” Here’s a story about waiting for Kirsten Dunst outside a club that is vivid, funny, poignant and relatable. Or take this line from ‘The Opposite of Hallelujah’: “I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness, but a crab crawled out of it, making it useless.”
Recently I’ve been wearing out my M. Ward records (metaphorically, on Spotify) in anticipation of his imminent More Rain. And man, despite some repetition, can Matthew Ward write some good lyrics. His songs often brim with concreteness that somehow lifts the listener into whatever transcendent emotional experience he’s describing. His list of characters in ‘Girl from Conejo Valley’ reads almost like a short story by O’Connor (if she lived in California in the 21st century) that revives the otherwise tired old-girlfriend trope. Sure, a lot of Ward’s songs fall into the same stylistic groove that he has, at this point, worn well. But his lyrics are consistently specific and enjoyable.
Maybe the real genius of a good lyric happens when something concrete (and the more common the better) is illuminated in a new light. Marilynne Robinson, in an interview, defined an artist, wonderfully, as someone who could say, “Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.” At their best, Beam (sometimes), Lekman and Ward all have that knack. Their lyrics are often simply telling us to look: look at this house! this avocado! this recently released convict!
Right now it’s March and, more specifically, raining. I’m looking forward to more rain.