At the weekend my cousin Tam posted his selection of favourite lyrics over at Where’s Runnicles. Damn him for doing so, because it inspired me to stay up way past my bedtime last night drafting the list of my favourites. Like Tam, I’m restricting myself to one song per artist, and also I gave myself a limit of ten songs (more for the sake of my sanity than anything else).
I’ll start where Tam ended, with Nick Cave. He is of course a brilliant songwriter and I’m spoilt for choice here. I considered the economical storytelling in the first verse of We Came Along This Road, and the wordplay in Easy Money, but my favourite is this description of a graveyard in Gates to the Garden:
Fugitive fathers, sickly infants, decent mothers
Runaways and suicidal lovers
Assorted boxes of ordinary bones
Of aborted plans and sudden shattered hopes
In unlucky rows
In unhappy rows
In unlucky rows
Up to the gates of the garden
Luke Haines is always eloquent. While I’m no expert on his music, I do have a couple of Auteurs albums in my collection. New Wave has some wonderful poetry throughout. In particular, Valet Parking paints a wonderful picture from the first lines:
Never saw your driver’s eyes
Or me on parking street
We were planning your demise
Your chauffeur’s tired
But you’re still on heat.
Through to the last verse:
Never thought I’d see the day
When your pale face turned grey
Got no guts, got no fame
Your unfaithful slave
It seems to me that all ROME songs contain some wonderful turn of phrase within them. Jerome Reuter’s skills seem to get sharper with every album and I think that perhaps their two strongest songs lyrically are La Rose et la Hache and Les Isles Noires, both from their most recent album, Nos Chants Perdus. My absolute favourite though is this metaphor from We Who Fell in Love with the Sea which often gets stuck in my head:
You say „why weep over what?“
We say weep until the weeping’s done
And we shall weep for another day
For what binds us to our grief
Binds the sculptor to his clay
From the sublime to the ridiculous, perhaps, but no less sublime for it: Freezepop. They’ve always struck me as being on the intellectual side of synthpop, whether it’s with mischevious songs like Bike Thief or Do You Like My Wang™? or with the quirky romance of Duct Tape My Heart. But for sheer lyrical joy, it’s hard to beat these lines from Chess King:
You’re looking sassy and you know it cause you sport the Benetton
You walk right past me and don’t show it but you wanna get it on
Hiding in the food court I know that I may not get a second chance
I’ve got a car, I’ve got Drakkar and now I’m looking for romance
And then from joy back into misery again with Arab Strap. They spent ten years writing eloquently about relationships gone wrong and I was hard pressed to choose between some of my favourites such as Don’t Ask Me to Dance and The Shy Retirer. But I think one of their great lyrical moments comes near the end of Fucking Little Bastards:
They’ve scrutinized the mistakes I’ve been makin’
They know who I’ve fucked, they know what I’ve taken
They’ve seen me in the shower with shit down my legs
They’ve seen me searching a stranger’s house for dregs
I used to think they loved me but now I know it’s pity
Because they know that they can always flee this fucking city
They even said they’d help me out and give me a head start
But they know that these days my cock’s as numb as my heart
Tam chose One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong from Leonard Cohen’s large catalogue of extraordinary songwriting. It’s one of my favourites too, but for my absolute favourite I’ll have to go with these two lines from Sisters of Mercy:
Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family but soon it comes round to your soul
I can barely think of those two lines and remain dry-eyed.
Sometimes lyrics don’t have to be perfect to be superb. In the case of Spiritual Front, their great ideas often shine through despite the errors of grammar and pronunciation (English not being their first language). But I think this from Song for the Old Man shows them at their best:
Twenty years in the tropics
One hundred years of regrets
Life is to long to repent and too short to deify the bitterness
Your ironed shirt, your brushed hair, your perfect dye go beyond
Every political conviction and against every classfight
I loved your style and your hatred for, your hatred for mediocrity
God will not give you an honoured place but he will envy your shined shoes
I will sing my worst South American song at your funeral, my old man.
Back to the ridiculous for a second time, this time with Bal-Sagoth. Their 1996 album, Starfire Burning Upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule, tells an epic tale of bloodthirsty, Tolkien-esque sword and sorcery. It’s not so much that there’s a particular moment of lyric brilliance in it, more that it’s just such a singular work and I wanted to pick something here that would be representative of the whole. I’ll go with these lines from To Dethrone the Witch-Queen of Mytos K’Unn (The Legend Of the Battle of Blackhelm Vale):
A staggering sea of crimson, a towering mountain of ravaged flesh,
All enraptured by the searing kiss of steel,
All surfeit from supping deep of the grim chalice of battle…
Brooding gods of the north, display to these outlander thralls thine ire,
Envenom our blades with the death-kiss of a thousand serpents,
Unfetter the dread war-wolves within us,
That their claws may rend, and their jaws may be reddened.
And then back into this world again, Tam picked Seven Signs of Ageing by Phillip Jeays. I’ll take the opportunity to pick another of Phillip Jeays’ songs, October, which is neither humorous nor political, but contains this violently romantic image:
I will love you like a hooligan
I will smash the windows of your heart
And steal your days away from him
(Incidentally, it’s Tam who introduced me to the music of Phillip Jeays via his non-blogging brother.)
And I’ll end with someone who I think is an extraordinary songwriter, Joanna Newsom. Her album Ys is a sprawling mass of poetic beauty. I was leaning towards picking Emily for its wonderful cosmic imagery, but then I read these lines from Only Skin and the tears in my eyes made the decision for me:
All my bones they are gone, gone, gone
Take my bones, I don’t need none
Cold, cold cupboard, Lord, nothing to chew on!
Suck all day on a cherry stone
Dig a little hole, not three inches round
Spit your pit in the hole in the ground
Weep upon the spot for the starving of me!
Till up grew a fine young cherry tree
Well when the bough breaks, what’ll you make for me?
A little willow cabin to rest on your knee
Well what will I do with a trinket such as this?
Think of your woman, who’s gone to the west
But I’m starving and freezing in my measly old bed!
Then I’ll crawl across the salt flats to stroke your sweet head
Come across the desert with no shoes on!
I love you truly, or I love no-one