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Columns > Note for Note - Holly Isbister

Published: 2005/08/08
by Holly Isbister

All About The Lyrics

The first time I heard Radiohead’s Kid A was in June of 2004, almost four years after its release date. It was a hot day in Chicago, and I had yet to install my window unit. I was hungover, and as I lay on my couch on a Saturday afternoon, trying to catch a breeze from the open windows, I let the opening track ‘Everything in Its Right Place,’ sink into my psyche and open a door to my subconscious. The next 45 minutes I dozed in and out of reality and dream, absorbing the music and lyrics through my skin. Some songs are so real that they transcend emotion and become a physical presence in the room. Such was the case with Kid A.
Recently, I had a similar experience with Sufjan Stevens’ most recent release entitled Illinois. Stevens’ songwriting is deep and one is able to draw multiple interpretations with each listen. But it’s his lyrics that are particularly engrossing; and this is also the case with Kid A. Stevens was a creative writing major, and perhaps this is why he’s so able to adeptly describe in startling yet unique detail, many of our foibles as humans. Regardless of the degree however, it seems to me that some artists are just able to capture human life in a lyrical form better than others. In many cases this is what will make an album endearing to me – I too was a creative writing major and I tend to get the most from an album that engages my appreciation for good writing.
It occurs to me that this is precisely why I don’t like so many of the jambands I listen to from time to time. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions. Phish, for one. Many of their songs are full of really distinctive images. One listen to Rift will reveal the depth and breadth of their talent as songwriters. Umphrey’s McGee is another band capable of harnessing the imagination and applying it when it comes to their lyrics. ‘Roulette’ and ‘Push the Pig’ are both outstanding examples of lyrics that inspire a deeper thinking process.
But these are exceptions to the norm. It seems like all I hear about from today’s jamband lyricists are clich Therefore I have compiled a list of metaphors that are shamefully abused by certain bands that shall go unnamed. In fact, one band has an entire album in which almost every song makes reference to at least one of the following. Heretofore I ask all songwriters to please steer clear of the metaphors listed below:
1. Rivers – whether you’re following that same ‘ole river, watching the river roll, rolling down (or on) a river, swimming upstream, or flowing with the river’s current, the river has just about been exhausted of any original ideas.
2. Oceans – Tides go in and out, waves roll, the seas of change – all overdone. Do you catch my drift?
3. Getting caught/getting busted – It might be the cops, it might be you’re running from something that might catch up with you (the past, the sun, the darkness, the moon – see number four), might be the fear of getting caught, or at worst, getting caught ‘in a trap’ or ‘by a woman.’
4. Celestial Events/Meteorological Events – the sun rising, setting, the moon rising or setting, the stars shining, the sky above you, the rain moving in, the rain going away, thunder, lightening, the stormy skies, the wind blowing (especially winds of change).
5. Gambling – references to rolling the dice, playing a hand, losing or winning a bet, running out of luck, getting lucky, and my personal favorite – any reference to a losing streak.
6. Life on the road/Going down a road – this particularly applies when the road is ‘lonesome’ or ‘hard.’ Often the road is long, particularly if you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
7. Time – passing time, watching it go by, whiling it away, wishing you had more of it, running out of it.
8. California – Do I really need to explain this? The state has enough songs written about it already. All the good aspects of the Governator’s state have already been covered. Notable exceptions are ‘California’ by Joni Mitchell and ‘Going to California’ by Led Zeppelin.
The list could go on and on. Let me be clear though – I’m not saying it’s easy to write a song without referencing one of the aforementioned ideas. It’s HARD. That’s one of the reasons why Stevens and Yorke are such incredible songwriters. I’m also not saying that referencing these metaphors immediately makes a song bad. Sometimes it’s the lyricist’s ability to take an oft-overused topic and make it completely unique. For example, moe.‘s ‘Nebraska’ is a song about being on the road AND meteorological/celestial events, that actually gives a refreshingly unique take on it. All I am trying to say is that in a genre where lyrics often take a backseat to musicianship, my momma’s sound advice still rings true: ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’

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