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.)