02 September 2023

On lyrics

Typically song lyrics struggle on the page. Without their musical settings, they can seem tedious, obvious, vague, lacking conviction or irony.

One exception I've come across is the Winterreise (or Winter Journey) written by the German poet and soldier Willhelm Müller and famously adapted into a cycle of 24 art songs by Franz Schubert shortly before the composer's death in 1828.

I don’t think it’s cheating to cite a group of poems which originally were published as mere words on a page. I can’t read the original German, and I can’t assess their actual prosody, but in English anyway they basically seem like typical early Romantic poetry.

However — especially as lyrics — I think they’re perfect.

I had listened to the full song cycle on my own late last year, and in January my mom and I saw it performed as the first concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2023 Winter Festival, with baritone Nikolay Borchev and pianist Wu Han.

There is something to seeing a man stand up there and sing two dozen somber songs at you for an hour — you can imagine the Biedermeier living room, the friends gathered around in their evening wear, the singer stands up and puts his hand on the lid of the piano, the other on his chest, and an hour later receives gracious if somewhat bemused applause, and with a shiver sits back down.

But, reading along as these words were sung, and reading them again after the concert was over, I somehow felt that despite the sensitivity, coherence and fireside glow of Schubert’s music, the lyrics let me in — all the way in — while the music in some ways kept me at a distance. They’re antique German songs. I can enjoy and appreciate common practice European art music (shouts out to Chabrier), but — whatever it is — the syrupy cadences, the plunking, earnest pathos, the oval chiaroscuro singing style — something, at least for now, stands in the way.

The lyrics, though, seem to me a genuine treasure trove. I just can’t imagine being a professional poet and not being overcome with jealousy reading this stuff. A young man stands outside the house of his not-to-be sweetheart, writes goodnight on her gate, and sets off through the town and the surrounding wilderness on a cold winter night and into the morning, where he joins a hurdy-gurdy player, resolving to follow him around from town to town singing these very songs.

Unforced, unpretentious, but completely thorough, completely integral in its exploration and development of the theme — a glittering cascade of fresh and convincing devices.

The moon casts a shadow of his retreating frame — his only companion. He won’t disturb her dreams. Her mother spoke of marriage. Stray dogs howl. Love loves to wander.

He scolds his tears for freezing on his face, when they seemed to spring from their source burning hot. He looks for footprints from happier times, some article to keep as a memento. “When my sorrows fall silent, what shall tell me of her?” When the cage of ice around his heart melts, her image too will melt away.

He comes upon the lime tree in whose shadow he once rested, on whose bark he once carved words of love. He can still hear the leaves rustling. His hat flies off his head.

A torrent under the crust. When the snow finally melts, his tears will direct the current toward his sweetheart’s house. “Every stream will reach the sea.”

He thanks the storm for helping to blow him along, rests in a charcoal burner’s hut, dreams of kisses and bliss. When he awakes, he mistakes the frost on the windowpanes for flowers.

He sees his hair coated with frost and thinks he’s gone gray, glad to be closer to death. He watches a leaf fall from a tree, pinning on it all his hopes and dreams. He thinks of those who forget their dreams when they wake but find traces of hope left over on their pillows. He, however, is done with dreaming.

Why shun the highways? He must take one road by which no-one ever came back.

A graveyard is an inn with no vacancy. If we can’t have gods on Earth, we our gods ourselves.

A sun dog beating in the sky. A hurdy-gurdy man traipsing across the ice...

Talk about elemental. 24 dinky old lyrics, with a conceptual narrative armature and everything, and not a hint of bullshit. Not even the bullshit endemic to so much Romantic poetry — swooning to death and all that. Better than clever, but not serendipitous doggerel either. More like Keats’ best verses: clear and lovely and hauntingly sincere.

I also think the perseverance of the speaker, the fact that the majority of these poems take place in the morning rather than the night, the mysterious auroral resolution — this stuff doesn’t just seem like an echo of the shrill hysteria of adolescence (though many of its episodes are eerily familiar). I think the difficult peregrination of moulting and mourning and experience it describes so plausibly is always relevant, always painful. To me, this is spiritual food — courage.

I’ve been writing some lyrics of my own. One of them takes its refrain from Der Lindenbaum: Even In The Dark I Had To Close My Eyes.

My taste seems to vacillate between the hopelessly obscure and the utterly plain, something like Jim O’Rourke’s “Good Times” on the one hand and Nick Drake’s “Which Will” on the other.

In any case, I’ve come up with a sort of hierarchy of values for myself which I’d like to share with anyone else who might be writing or studying song lyrics. I wouldn’t recommend trying to generate a song from them (though I think they do indicate something about poetic germs), but for analyzing and optimizing, I think they could be useful. They have been for me.

Also, not every song needs to or could really be expected to maximize each of the categories. Typically it seems like a good lyric is strong in two, and a great lyric is strong in three, especially the higher priority values.

Interestingly, the top and bottom values are for me the generative forces for a song, although too much of the latter can threaten the former. #3 can also compromise #4, and vice versa, and so on.

In order of importance:

  1. Urgency
    Feeling, compulsion, desperation, marrow. More a condition than a product: the “I had to say this” whose authority licenses the performer to invest the lines with their own charismatic gravity.
  2. Depth
    Openness, ambiguity, room for irony and doubt, innuendo, lingering aftertaste.
  3. Surprise
    Surface irregularity, syncopation, juicy diction, evocative detail, idiosyncratic phrasing, strained artifice, frisson.
  4. Sentimentality
    Folksy eeriness and superstition, ballad-ness, proverb-ness, anthropomorphism, inevitability, melodrama, doom.
  5. Conceit
    Thematic unity, cohesion, motivic development, mannerism, design, logic, conceptual provocation, “I wish I’d thought of that.”