just like the time before and the time before that?

One of the things I write about often here is my relation to music and lyrics: more specifically, how and why it is that I seem to pay less attention to lyrics than most people do (to the extent that at times I’ll be unaware what a song’s lyrics are, even if I’ve listened to it regularly for years, sometimes even for decades). Anyway, I happened to read William Ruhlmann’s All-Music Guide review of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” (oh shut up: it’s a good song), wherein Ruhlmann says Hunter claimed that “people don’t listen to songs the way they read poetry, i.e., in a linear manner, able to appreciate what came before and anticipate what is coming after. Rather, they hear isolated lines. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ is written in isolated lines with repeating patterns and phrases; it does not have a narrative.”

That makes a lot of sense to me, and begins to explain, sort of, the way lyrics do or don’t work for me. Partly this is a matter of listening circumstance: if you typically listen to music while sitting down and doing nothing else, you can maybe devote the time (and memory) to following a narrative. But I think most people listen to music a bit more distractedly: on the radio while driving, on a CD while reading or eating dinner, on their iPod while jogging, and so on. Even songs whose lyrics are linear narratives might well be put together, in the manner of a film, from fragments assembled out of order, over multiple listenings.

This notion also clarifies something I’ve possibly misrepresented: it’s not that I don’t hear lyrics at all (as if the singer’s just going la-la-la through the whole song), it’s more that I hear bits and pieces, distinctive phrases, rather than the lyric as a whole. Unsurprisingly, then, that I’ve written in the past that I like lyrics that don’t necessarily cohere into a narrative, but rather present a series of distinctive images or allusions that, while not necessarily forming a narrative or coherent image, do tend to align at some level.

Still, it’s not as if I’m totally immune to narrative songs. I think songwriters are (whether consciously or not) aware of some of the problems narrative presents (as Hunter notes), and so find ways to bring even casual listeners into the narrative. One way, of course, is to foreground the lyrics directly: place the vocals high in the mix, make the accompanying music relatively simple, so it’s clear to the listener that lyrics are the song’s focus. Repetition helps too – at least at the level of structure. One interesting strategy is demonstrated by Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Even though, musically, the song has verses and choruses, many of the chorus sections feature entirely different lyrics. That is, while in most popular music, the recurring chorus actually breaks the narrative (and serves to pay the bills by ID’ing the track, much in the way commercials and their surrounding show-identifying bumpers do on TV), when what sounds like a chorus comes around with different lyrics, that’s a signal to the listener that they have to pay more attention to those lyrics than they would in a standard chorus – since in that standard chorus, the words are the same as they were the first time, and therefore the chorus gives the lyric-processing portions of the brain a brief breather.

Another technique (and now I’m stuck coming up with an example) is enjambment: that is, having thoughts or grammatical phrases end not at the end of a musical line but carry over to the next – which is to say, the musical phrase will end, but the singer’s thought is clearly unfinished. Again, this signals to the listener that the words aren’t just noises the singer’s making, but part of a syntactical unit that, in this case, is incomplete. And so: stay tuned for our thrilling conclusion.

Since I’ve accidentally stumbled upon this televisual analogy as I’m writing this, it strikes me as likely that a good narrative lyric probably breaks down into “acts” just as a good script does. Finding examples is left as an exercise to the reader.

Perhaps relatedly, I was reading at David Byrne’s online journal his review of a book called Capturing Sound, which describes the way various recording technologies have affected music. Something similar there: the circumstances of recording (and of listening) affect the object. Certainly much of what we accept without question (quiet vocals at the same level as amplified band, drums distributed across a stereo field, songs that fade out) is an artifact of recording and would strike listeners in any earlier era as extremely odd and, probably, “unmusical” – since no live musicians could possibly produce such music. Incidentally, the denarrativization of music is fairly evident in the course of twentieth-century music (as I commented in an earlier post), and even though popular music has stuck with fairly legible formal structures for longer than most contemporary concert music has, the denarrativization (or renarrativization: narrative but in newer forms) has become more prominent in popular music as well. (“Popular” here refers not to sales but to the music’s modes of production, distribution, and consumption.)



Filed under noise, noiselike, thinky

6 responses to “just like the time before and the time before that?

  1. Nyssa23

    Wow, I click on your link from CC and lo and behold, you’re talking about one of my favorite bands in the whole world! And David Byrne, too! It must be fate. Heh.

  2. amy

    man, i love “uncle john’s band”. that’s one of the greatest songs ever. i also think that robert hunter is a kickass lyricist, and probably not as associative and non-linear as he claims to be. i always thought it was a pretty straightforward song about screwing around in a hippie rock and roll band with everybody else in your society is off to war in one way or another. sort of like “lather” by the airplane, only not quite so explicit.

  3. summervillain

    The first name that comes to mind for enjambment is Tom Lehrer. He frequently broke individual words across structural boundaries in the song. tag.

  4. flasshe

    How long did it take the lyrics of Skullcrusher Mountain to register with you? Hmmm, it strikes me that one more or less fits the three act narrative model. Well, except that there’s no real reversal or resolution in the third act.

    prgivly! prgivly!

  5. 2fs

    “Amy”? But I see where that links to…and I’ve seen pictures, and I’m just not so sure you’d look that hot in a skirt. Maybe I’m wrong. Send photos…

    Flasshe: Well, the difference there is that I first heard the song live, solo acoustic, with Coulton as the opener for one of John Hodgman’s readings. In that setting, it’s fairly apparent that the lyrics are the thing. But also, of course, another way an artist can draw attention to lyrics is by making them fucking hilarious.

    S-V: Arrrgh, one o’ them bastard “tags” eh? I’ll get to it. Just don’t expect to use that newfangled meaning of “meme” to refer to it, ‘kay?

  6. 2fs

    S-villain: Funny you should mention Tom Lehrer – some of his stuff was just playing in my car yesterday. You are correct about his use of enjambment, by the way…

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