Monday, January 10, 2011

Art and Artists: Lyricists

There are few things better in life than combining one thing I enjoy with another. For example: root beer and vanilla ice cream, lunar eclipses and Pink Floyd, football and Saturdays. One accentuates the other to the extent that both are enjoyed on a larger scale, often so much so as to illustrate the idea that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Pretty cool.

One of my favorite combinations is of music and profound poetic genius...and while profound might be a bit of a stretch, a song with powerful or beautiful or poignant lyrics will always catch my ear more than one that could be written by a middle schooler. Perhaps this explains my affinity for folk and indie music while maintaining a general dislike of rap and hip hop (yes, I know there are some rappers who are masters of word choice...there are exceptions to every rule).

A couple of discussions with friends of mine concerning lyrically enjoyable songs gave me the idea for this post: to highlight a few pieces of songs which stick out to me as fantastically written or especially insightful. As well, I asked a friend to contribute something highlighting a song which jumps out at him. There are certainly many more songs with great or intriguing lyrics than just the ones we will point out below...I am always interested in hearing new music; feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments section at the end of this post.

from Bowl of Oranges by Bright Eyes

...So that is how I learned the lesson that everyone is alone.
And your eyes must do some raining if you are ever going to grow.
But when crying don't help and you can't compose yourself,
it's best to compose a poem,
an honest verse of longing or a simple song of hope...

I love this. I have written before about how I believe heartbreak is a necessary part of life; learning about ourselves, how the world is and how to survive through tough times becomes so much more applicable and real when we experience a broken heart. Previously, I wrote that "I believe that the important truth we have been ignoring is the benefit of having our hearts broken. I know, it sounds backwards. Even with all of the pain and sadness it can cause, I firmly believe that there are some immeasurable positives that can come from such an experience." I still believe that to be true, and perhaps that is why this song caught my ear. The line "And your eyes must do some raining if you are ever going to grow" speaks to this truth, and that simple song of hope which Conor mentions is something which we could all use.

The most interesting thing might be the fact that these words are sung not with sadness or in reflection; rather, they are sung with almost a hopeful tone and in a way that is uplifting, as if the recognition that life is hard and heartbreak exists is enough to let us move on and take hold of hope.

from On the Radio by Regina Spektor

...No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some - someone else's heart
Pumping someone else's blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don't get harmed
But even if it does
You'll just do it all again...

You have to be able to love yourself before you can really love anyone else. It took me a long, long time to realize this...but the beauty of this truth is the freedom it brings once you grasp hold of it. Yeah, falling in love means becoming vulnerable and giving someone the very tools to hurt you the worst. But love is simply the greatest emotion we can know, worth even the deepest heartache and vulnerability. So great that even when you do have your heart broken, "you'll just do it all again". We are so predictable, for better or for worse. Regina Spektor conveys these emotions in a very relatable fashion, both through voice and words. I don't think the emotion would get across without both: the way her voice meshes with the ideas so seamlessly is perhaps why the lyrics are so relatable, but the lyrics alone are beautiful and true.

from Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

It is strange to hear grace being mentioned in the middle of a popular song, but at the same time this short verse talks about it so eloquently and with such truth. Grace has always been a topic that sparks my interest, if only for the difficultly I have in accepting it. You see, I'm one of those people who hates owing anyone anything, and I try to repay my debts as quickly and as fully as possible. So much so that the idea of a free pass doesn't sit well in my head...accepting grace means not repaying my debts, and I hate that. But still, grace is fascinating to me, if only because I want to understand it more completely.

The few times I have experienced real grace, the thing that touched my heart and helped me understand it is the thing talked about in the stanza above...the welcome I recieve at the restart. There is an aspect of the Prodigal Son in all of us, and being welcomed home despite my flaws and my past and my brokenness is one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. Even if I still want to make up for my mistakes.

from Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, lyrics by Leonard Cohen
(written by Matt Kearney)

Well maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken, "Hallelujah"
Hallelujah, hallelujah

Jeff Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful piece of music I've ever heard. Something in the soft, slow melody urges you to stop and listen. And then you hear Jeff's voice clear above the music, at once heart-wrenching and mystifying. Hearing him sing about love and its expression in deeply emotional sex is like one of those spine-tingling moments when you experience pure truth and beauty in a moment of solitude. His voice is at once quiet and loud, emotional and yet reserved like a man with cool-headed wisdom. Hallelujah is an expression of joy meaning "praise to the Lord" in Hebrew, but Buckley uses the term as a more secular expression of emotion, particularly as it relates to love. (The song does, however, include religious references, including King David writing hymns to God and allusions to Bathsheba and Delilah.) Buckley sings about the different meanings "hallelujah" can have for those in love. It can be a lustful expression of ecstasy, a joyful expression of pure happiness, a sarcastic expression of emptiness, and potentially many more things besides. With each stanza the mood shifts subtly. What makes the song so incredible is the listener's inability to say exactly what quality makes those transitions happen. There is no notable auditory difference throughout the song, and yet the words strike a different chord in each verse. The last stanza reaches into the heart of Buckley's song (see above).

The words are not particularly outstanding, but something about the way Jeff sings it make them seem so. He pours his soul into those words with beautiful emotion, but yet his voice does not quaiver. And then approaching the end of the song, he lets out a "Hallelujah" that seems to last forever. He holds that note for so long and still pours his heart into it. You can't help but listen with hushed wonder.

Jeff Buckley made music that has that undefinable, yet undeniable, quality to it, which is now a rarity among musicians. "Hallelujah" wasn't made to please the ear. It was made to express a part of our inner vitality, our inner life, our soul.

Thanks for reading.

And so on...

No comments:

Post a Comment