I originally wr0te this for Magnet, but it’s essentially a “First Song of the Month” piece (when I was first getting that idea going) and I like the point that it’s making, so I’m editing it and republishing it here.
I’ve been thinking recently about the French singer Françoise Hardy, and specifically thinking about the first Hardy song I ever heard, which did nothing for me.
The song was “All Over the World,” one of Hardy’s songs in English. I remember feeling that there was something vaguely silly about it, that it felt kind of lightweight. The melody and backing track were pretty enough, but they also felt kind of clunky and conventional, with Hardy’s accent awkwardly distracting from the emotional pull of a lyric that felt generic to begin with. I kind of discounted the song, and even, at first, the singer.
Then, about six months later, I was listening to another Hardy record and was struck by a beautiful, stately ballad; Hardy’s voice was gorgeous and whisper-quiet over an almost funereally solemn classically-derived piano arpeggio, and the lyrics, in French, seemed profoundly meaningful even though I didn’t know what they were about. I realized, when I looked at the title of the song, that it was “All Over the World” – the exact same recording, in fact, but with Hardy singing in French instead of English.
Somehow, in French, the song sounded completely different. Hardy’s singing was beautiful and sonorous rather than gawky and tentative like in the English version. She sounded comfortable, she sounded womanly instead of girlish, and she sounded sad and wise. Her voice felt so right, in fact, that it made everything else about the recording sound different. I noticed the way her vocal melody interacted with the piano. I noticed the low end in the recording, and the beautiful, deliberate pacing of the arrangement. Because I don’t understand French hardly at all, I could read any meaning I wanted into the lyrics – but they actually sounded beyond meaning, like that pretty vocal melody was the meaning of the song, deeper and more profound than “all over the world people must meet and part,” from the English version.
This was around the time I started pre-production work on the Roky Erickson album True Love Cast Out All Evil, back when I was sorting through the 60-plus songs Roky’s manager had given me to consider for inclusion. There was one song on the three CDs he sent me which I loved instantly, and which kept reminding me of this other song by an old blues singer named Pat Hare. I noticed, without thinking about it too much, that my production ideas for the song were being slightly influenced by my memory of Hare’s song. Then I realized, in a flash, that there was actual very little musical similarity between the two songs at all but that they just had very similar lyrics. The similarity in the lyrics was so glaringly obvious – Roky’s song was called “Please, Judge,” while Hare’s song, “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” (which, by the way, ended up being autobiographical) began with the lines, “Good morning Judge, and the Jury too – I’ve got a few things I’d like to say to you,” and continued with Hare addressing the courtroom at length.
I felt so stupid that I had mixed up music and lyrics in my mind that I suddenly found myself wishing I couldn’t understand lyrics at all, that my mind could be wiped clean of the meaning of language and I could just appreciate it musically. Because the truth is that if you focus on lyrics too closely they can blind you to other musical elements of a song.
Brian Beattie, who has been co-producer on many Okkervil River records, takes a kind of perverse delight in informing people that he doesn’t listen to lyrics and doesn’t care about them. I always appreciated that attitude, but it wasn’t until actually working on production myself that I truly realized how vital a skill that can be. People who are too influenced by the great lyrical masters like Bob Dylan (who, coincidentally, briefly dated Hardy), sometimes get so impressed by lyrics they think that a great lyric can salvage a pedestrian song. It’s just not true. A song is a whole, and the meaning of the song comes as much from the groove in the rhythm section, the particular dirtiness of the guitar, the sheer abstract sound of the words coming out of the singer’s mouth. The order of the syllables and the rise and breathy fall and the choke in the singer throat all tell you just as much as what the actual words do.
Early on when I started doing interviews for Okkervil River, people would ask me about my all-time favorite lines from rock songs. As I started thinking more about the question, I realized I was surprised by my own answers. The truth is that a lot of the most famous work by the most celebrated lyricists just bugs me. People get too clever, or start trying to show off their intelligence or their skill with wordplay, or they pile words and words and words on an uninteresting piece of music, complacently expecting their audience to stick with them because they’re a “great songwriter.” A certain kind of intellectual vanity starts to creep in, and pleasure starts to bleed away.
I started to realize that some of my all-time favorite lyrics don’t mean anything at all. The Carter Family’s signature song “Wildwood Flower” is famous for lyrics that got passed down through so many generations of performers that – like a bad game of “telephone” – they warped into nonsense, kicking off with, “Oh, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair” and including one of my all-time favorite lines ever sung, “The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.” Many of the earliest couple generations of rockers – and their disciples – were weaned on the American and English folk revival scenes, whether or not they heard “Wildwood Flower,” many of them intuitively grasped that meaning was only about half of what made a lyric good, that, paradoxically, some of the best lyrics have an awkward inarticulate clunk to them. For example, I’ve always deeply admired Alex Chilton’s lines, “On Beale street green my wishes visualize the real, so real scene ‘twixt me and you.” (Roky understands this too – my favorite lyric of his might be “God Is Everywhere”’s final line: “Also also thought-lost and never-known treasures coming back to we.”)
Ultimately, though, I think the lyric I’m absolutely the most jealous of in all of English-language songwriting is a John Lennon line from “Strawberry Fields Forever” – the immortally awkward, “Always, no, sometimes, think it’s me.” It’s a lyric that verges on utter meaninglessness, but captures what I think of as the sensual and slurred mystery of the way thoughts form themselves in your brain, amending themselves and doubting themselves and finally collapsing back again, overwhelmed, synapses firing all at once but simultaneously stripped. It also just sounds fucking great when you sing it. It sounds like a song, a song you instantly know, a song that says everything, and all over the world everyone knows exactly what it means, but no one can say.
Originally published June 8, 2011 on Magnet. Revised.
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