A few mixed-up words on mixed-up words.
I like a good lyric as much as the next person. When a perfect phrase grabs you, it’s a sublime moment of understanding.
But I also kind of like it when a song is hard to understand.
As a kid, I mainly bought albums on cassette. In those days, it would seem tapes were a cheap afterthought from a record business perspective: they came without their own custom design, and certainly without lyrics printed. So I would spend hours trying to decipher what my favourite singers were singing. Sometimes, when I eventually found out what it was, I liked my own interpretations better.
Just as one example, for the longest time I thought that the line in Rush’s “Freewill”—the stars aren’t aligned, or the gods are malign—was the stars on the line of the dark summer night—a more poetic, if less meaningful per se (and certainly less showy), turn of phrase.
(Incidentally, I could say a lot of things about the recently deceased Neil Peart as a lyricist, and his perhaps unfortunate influence on my young writer’s mind, but I’m not sure this is the place, or indeed if that place in fact exists. But I will excerpt this passage from the same song—which incidentally I could never understand despite hundreds of listens, and remained a mystery until I looked it up recently—as a fond farewell…)
Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt
That’s far too fleet
Mumbling towards ecstasy
Later in life, I would become enraptured with deliberately mumble-mouthed singers. Obvious examples include Michael Stipe with the early REM, Mick Jagger on Exile on Main Street, Kurt Cobain whose vocals were slurred enough to be mocked by Weird Al… I liked the mystery of these unintelligible hooks, plus maybe I found some justification there for my own inability, or unwillingness, to sing clearly (as a child choral singer, I was often pestered to open my mouth wider and enunciate).
On the extreme end of incomprehensibility, you’ve got outright nonsense lyrics—the dadaist poetry of Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra,” the famous backwards hook in the chorus of Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” or the work of singers like Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser or Duchess Says’ Annie-Claude, who went as far as to make up their own languages… to me, these are the purest reflections of the idea that the important thing in a song lyric is how it sounds, not what it “means.”
I only once had the audacity to try this wordless approach myself in a song, very early on. If I’d been left to my own devices, most or all of my songs might just have had nonsense lyrics, but clearer heads prevailed…
Getting around to the point…
All of this is just to explain why, for many years, I resisted sharing the WP’s lyrics, even though people have asked about them from time to time. I guess I thought that song lyrics were meant to be heard, not read.
In keeping my lyrics obscure I was also deeply affected by David Thomas of Pere Ubu, who once declared in some liner notes that “Printing lyrics is a Bad Thing.” (What can I say? I’ve always been susceptible to strong personalities, manifestos and decrees.)
Well, times have changed, and now I want you all to bask in the brilliance of my lyricism. So I’ve made all the WP lyrics—from the random surrealism of the early days, to the self-help-influenced posicore pronouncements of the mid-late 2000s, to the emotional oversharing of the last decade—public for the people to enjoy. Now, you can saunter on over to the WP Bandcamp page and find out what I’m going on about in your favourite song.
Just be warned…. it won’t be as mysterious!